Edward Drysdale

About the year 1798, James Bradshaw and William Drysdale, both invalided masters of the Royal Navy, cast anchor for the remainder of their lives at about twelve miles’ distance from Exeter, on the London road. Bradshaw named his domicile, an old-fashioned straggling building, “Rodney Place,” in honour of the Admiral, in whose great victory he had fought. Drysdale’s smaller and snugger dwelling, about half a mile away from “Rodney Place,” was called “Poplar Cottage,” and about midway between them stood the “Hunter’s Inn,” a roadside public house, kept by one Thomas Burnham, a stout-hearted, jolly-bellied indi­vidual, the comeliness of whose rubicund figurehead was considerably damaged by the loss of an eye, of which, however, it is right to say, the extinguished light appeared to have been transferred in undiminished intensity to its fiery, piercing fellow. The retired masters, who had long known each other, were inti­mate as brothers, notwithstanding that Bradshaw was much the richest of the two, having contrived to pick up a considerable amount of prize-money, in addition to a rather large sum inherited from his father. Neither did the difference of circumstances oppose in Bradshaw’s opinion, the slightest obstacle to the union of his niece and heiress, Rachel Elford, with Edward Drysdale, his fellow veteran’s only surviving offspring. The precedent condition, however, was that Edward should attain permanent rank in the Royal Navy; and with this view, a midshipman’s warrant was obtained in ’99 for the young man, then in his eighteenth year, and he was despatched to sea.

The naval profession proved to be, unfortunately, one for which Edward Drysdale was altogether unfitted by temperament and bent of mind; and sad consequences followed. He had been at sea about eighteen months, when news reached England of a desperate, but successful cutting-out affair by the boats of the frigate to which he belonged. His name was not mentioned in the official report,—but that could hardly have been hoped for; neither was it in the list of killed and wounded. A map of the coast where the fight took place was procured; the battle was fought over and over again by the two veterans, and they were still indulging in those pleasures of the imagination, in the parlour of the “Hunter’s Inn,” when the landlord entered with a Plymouth paper in his hand, upon one paragraph in which his single orb of vision glared with fiery indignation. It was an extract from a letter written by one of the frigate’s officers, plainly intimating that midshipman Drysdale had shown the white feather in the late brush with the enemy, and would be sent home by the first opportunity. The stroke of a dagger could have been nothing compared with the sharp agony which such an announcement inflicted on the young man’s father, and Bradshaw was for a few moments equally thunderstricken. But he quickly rallied. William Drysdale’s son a coward! Pooh! the thing was out of nature,—impossible; and very hearty were his maledictions, savagely echoed by Burnham, with whom young Drysdale was a great favourite, of the lying lubber that wrote the letter, and the newspaper rascals that printed it.

Alas! it was but too true! On the third evening after the appearance of the alarming paragraph, the two mariners were sitting in the porch of Poplar Cottage, separated only by a flower garden from the main-road, conversing upon the sad and constantly recurring topic, when the coach from London came in sight. A youthful figure in naval uniform, on the boxseat, instantly riveted their attention, as it did that of Rachel Elford, who was standing in the little garden, apparently absorbed till that moment by the shrubs and flowers. The coach rapidly drew near, stopped, and Edward Drysdale alighted from it. The two seamen, instead of waiting for his approach, hastily arose from their seats and went into the cottage, as much perhaps to avoid the humiliating, though compassionate glances of the outside passengers, as from any other motive. The young man was deadly pale, and seemed to have hardly sufficient strength to move back the light wicket gate which admitted to the garden. He held by it till the coach had passed on, and then turned with a beseeching, half-reproachful look towards Rachel. She, poor girl, was as much agitated as himself, and appeared to be eagerly scanning his countenance, as if hopeful of reading there a contradiction of the dishonouring rumor that had got abroad. In answer to his mute appeal, she stepped quickly towards him, clasped his proffered hand in both hers, and with a faint and trembling voice ejaculated, “Dear, dear Edward! It is not true,—I am sure it is not, that you,—that you—”

“That I, Rachel, have been dismissed the naval service, as unfit to serve his majesty, is quite true,” rejoined Edward Drysdale, slowly, and with partially recovered calm,—“quite true!”

The young woman shrank indignantly from him, fire glanced in her suffused eyes, and her light, elegant figure appeared to grow and dilate with irrepressible scorn, as this avowal fell upon her ear. “A coward!” she vehemently exclaimed; “You that,—but no,” she added, giving way again to grief and tenderness, as she looked upon the fine, intelligent countenance of her lover, “it cannot be; there must be some error, some mistake. It is impossible!”

“There is error and mistake, Rachel; but the world will never, I fear, admit so much. But, come, let us in: you will go with me?”

We will not follow them till the first outburst of angry excitement is past; till the father’s passionate, heartbroken reproaches have subsided to a more patient, subdued, faintly-hopeful sorrow, and Rachel’s wavering faith in the manhood of her betrothed has regained something of its old firmness. Entering then, we shall find that only Mr. Bradshaw has remained obstinately and contemptuously deaf to what the young man has falteringly urged in vindication of his behaviour in the unhappy affair which led to his dismissal from the service. He had, it appeared, suddenly fainted at the sight of the hideous carnage in which, for the first time in his life, he found himself involved.

“You have a letter, you say, from Captain Otway,” said Mr. Drysdale, partially raising his head from his hands, in which it had been buried whilst his son was speaking. “Where is it? Give it to Rachel,—I cannot see the words.”

The note was directed to Mr. Drysdale, whom Captain Otway personally knew, and was no doubt kindly intended to soften the blow, the return of his son under such circumstances must inflict. Although deciding that Edward Drysdale was unfit for the naval profession, he did not think that the failure of the young man’s physical nerve in one of the most murderous encounters that had occurred during the war, was attributable to deficiency of true courage, and as a proof that it was not, Captain Otway mentioned that the young man had jumped overboard during half a gale of wind, and when night was falling, and saved, at much peril to himself, a seaman’s life. This was the substance of the note. As soon as Rachel ceased reading, Mr. Drysdale looked deprecatingly in his friend’s face, and murmured, “You hear?”

“Yes, William Drysdale, I do. I never doubted that your son was a good swimmer, no more than I do that coward means coward, and that all the letters in the alphabet cannot spell it to mean anything else. Come, Rachel,” added the grim, unreasoning, iron-tempered veteran, “let us be gone. And God bless, and if it be possible, comfort you, old friend! Goodbye! No, thank ye, young sir,” he continued, with renewed fierceness, as Edward Drysdale snatched at his hand. “That hand was once grasped by Rodney in such another business as the letter speaks of, when its owner did not faint! It must not be touched by you!”

The elder Drysdale took not long afterwards to his bed. He had been ailing for some time; but no question that mortification at his son’s failure in the profession to which he had with so much pride devoted him, helped to weaken the springs of life and accelerate his end, which took place about six months’ after Edward’s return home. The father and son had become entirely reconciled with each other, and almost the last accents which faltered from the lips of the dying seaman, were a prayer to Bradshaw to forget and forgive what had past, and renew· his sanction to the marriage of Edward and his niece. The stern man was inexorable; and his pitiless reply was, that he would a thousand times rather follow Rachel to her grave.

The constancy of the young people was not, however, to be subdued, and something more than a year after Mr. Drysdale’s death, they married; their present resources, the rents,—about one hundred and twenty pounds per annum,—of a number of small tenements at Exeter. They removed to within three miles of that city, and dwelt there in sufficiency and peace for about five years, when the exigencies of a fast increasing family induced them to dispose, not very advantageously, of their cottage property, and embark the proceeds in a showy speculation promising, of course, immense results, and really ending in the brief space of six months in their utter ruin. Edward Drysdale found himself, in lieu of his golden hopes, worth about two hundred pounds less than nothing. The usual consequences followed. An undefended suit at law speedily reached the stage at which execution might be issued, and unless a considerable sum of money could be instantly raised, his furniture would be seized under a fi. fa., and sacrificed to no purpose.

One only possible expedient remained,—that of once more endeavouring to soften the obduracy of Mr. Bradshaw. This it was finally determined to attempt, and Mr. and Mrs. Drysdale set off by a London morning coach upon the well-nigh hopeless speculation. They alighted at the “Hunter’s Inn,” where Drysdale remained, whilst his wife proceeded alone to Rodney Place. Thomas Burnham was friendly and good-natured as ever. The old mariner, he told Drysdale, was visibly failing, and his chief amusement seemed, to be scraping together and hoarding up money. James Berry, a broken-down tailor, and a chap, according to Burnham, who knew how many beans made five as well as any man in Devonshire, had been for some time valet, gardener, and general factotum at Rodney Place, and appeared to exercise great influence over Mr. Bradshaw. The only other person in the establishment was the old cook, Margery Deans, who, never otherwise, since he had known her, than desperately hard of hearing, was now become deaf as a stone. Drysdale, it was afterwards remembered, listened to all this with eager attention, and was especially inquisitive and talkative respecting Mr. Bradshaw’s hoarding propensities, and the solitary unprotected state in which he lived.

Mrs. Drysdale was long gone; but the tremulous hopes which her protracted stay called feebly forth, vanished at the sight of her pale, tearful, yet resolved aspect. “It is useless, Edward,” she murmured, with her arms cast lovingly about her husband’s neck, and looking in his face with far more lavish expression of affection than when, with orange blossoms in her hair, she stood a newly-consecrated wife beside him. “It is useless to expect relief from my uncle, save upon the heartless, impossible condition you know of. But let us home. God’s heaven is still above our heads, though clouds and darkness rest between. We will trust in Him, Edward, and fear not.”

So brave a woman should have been matched with a stout-hearted man; but this, unhappily, was not the case. Edward Drysdale was utterly despondent, and he listened, as his wife was afterwards fain to admit to myself and others, with impatient reluctance to all she said as they journeyed homewards, save when the condition of help spoken of, namely, that she should abandon her husband, and take up her abode with her children at Rodney Place, was discussed,—by her indignantly. Once also, when she mentioned that the old will in her favour was not yet destroyed, but would be, her uncle threatened, if she did not soon return, a bright, almost fiery expression seemed to leap from his usually mild, reflective eyes, and partially dissipate the thick gloom which mantled his features.

This occurred on a winter’s day in early March, and the evening up to seven o’clock had passed gloomily away with the Drysdales, when all at once the husband, starting from a profound reverie, said he would take a walk as far as Exeter, see the attorney in the suit against him, and, if possible, gain a little time for the arrangement of the debt. His wife acquiesced, though with small hope of any favourable result, and the strangely-abstracted man left the house.

Ten o’clock, the hour by which Edward Drysdale had promised to return, chimed from a dial on the mantelpiece. Mrs. Drysdale trimmed the fire, lit the candles, which, for economy’s sake, she had extinguished, and had their frugal supper laid. He came not. Eleven o’clock! What could be detaining him so late? Twelve!—half past twelve! Rachel Drysdale was just about to bid the servant maid, who was sitting’ up in the kitchen, go to bed, when the sound of carriage wheels going towards Exeter stopped at the door. It was a return post chaise, and brought Edward Drysdale. He staggered, as if intoxicated, into the kitchen, reached down a half bottle of brandy from a cupboard, and took it to the post boy, who immediately drove off. Anne Moody, the servant girl, was greatly startled by her master’s appearance: he looked, she afterwards stated, more the colour of a whited wall than of flesh and blood, and shook and “cowered” as if he had the ague. Mrs. Drysdale came into the kitchen, and stood gazing at her husband in a white, dumb kind of way (I am transcribing literally from the girl’s statement), till the outer door was fastened, when they both went up stairs into a front sitting room. Curiosity induced Anne Moody to follow, and she heard, just as the door closed upon them, Mrs. Drysdale say, “You have not been to Exeter, I am sure?” This was said in a nervous, shaking voice, and her master replied in the same tone, “No, I changed my mind,” or words to that effect. Then there was a quick whispering for a minute or two, interrupted by a half-stifled cry or scream from Mrs. Drysdale. A sort of hubbub of words followed, which the girl, a very intelligent person of her class, by-the-by, could not hear, or at least not make out, till Mr. Drysdale said in a louder, slower way, “You, Rachel,—the children are provided for; but, O God! at what a dreadful price!” Anne Moody, fearful of detection, did not wait to hear more, but crept stealthily up stairs to bed, as her mistress had ordered her to do, when she left the kitchen. On the following morning the girl found her master and mistress both up, the kitchen and parlour fires lit, and breakfast nearly over. Mr. Drysdale said he was in a hurry to get to Exeter, and they had not thought it worth while to call her at unseasonable hours. Both husband and wife looked wild and haggard, and this, Moody, when she looked into their bedchamber, was not at all surprised at, as it was clear that neither of them had retired to rest. One thing and the other, especially kissing and fondling the children over and over again, detained Mr. Drysdale till half past eight o’clock, and then, just as he was leaving the house, three men confronted him! A constable of the name of Parsons, James Berry, Mr. Bradshaw’s servant, and Burnham, the landlord of the Hunter’s Inn. They came to arrest him on a charge of burglary and murder! Mr. Bradshaw had been found early in the morning cruelly stabbed to death beside his plundered strongbox.

I must pass lightly over the harrowing scenes which followed,—the tumultuous agony of the wife, and the despairing asseverations of the husband, impossible to be implicitly believed in even by that wife, for the criminating evidence was overwhelming. Drysdale had been seen skulking about Rodney Place till very late by both Burnham and Berry. In the room through which he must have passed in going and returning from the scene of his frightful crime, his hat had been found, and it was now discovered that he, Drysdale, had taken away and worn home one of Berry’s,—no doubt from hurry and inadvertence. In addition to all this, a considerable sum of money in gold and silver, enclosed in a canvasbag, well-known to have belonged to the deceased, was found upon his person! It appeared probable that the aim of the assassin had been only robbery in the first instance, for the corpse of the unfortunate victim was found clothed only in a nightdress. The fair inference, therefore, seemed to be that the robber, disturbed at his plunder by the wakeful old seaman, had been compelled, perhaps reluctantly, to add the dreadful crime of murder to that which he had originally contemplated. The outcry through the county was terrific, and as Edward Drysdale, by the advice of Mr. Sims, the attorney, who subsequently instructed Mr. Prince, reserved his defense, there appeared to be nothing of a feather’s weight to oppose against the tremendous mass of circumstance arrayed against the prisoner.

And when, upon the arrival of the King’s Commission at Exeter, Mr. Prince received a very full and carefully-drawn brief in defense,—a specious, but almost wholly unsupported story of the prisoner’s appeared all that could be relied upon in rebuttal of the evidence for the Crown. According to Edward Drysdale, he merely sought Mr. Bradshaw upon the evening in question for the purpose of concluding with that gentleman an arrangement for the separation of himself from his wife and children, and their domiciliation at Rodney Place. It was further averred that he was received with greater civility than he expected; that the interview was a long one, during which he, Drysdale, had seen nobody but Mr. Bradshaw, although he believed the aged and deaf cook was in the kitchen. That he had arranged that Mrs. Drysdale and his children should be early on the morrow with her uncle, and that he had received the money found on his person and at his house from the deceased’s own hands, in order to pay the debt and costs in the suit wherein execution was about to be levied on his furniture, and that the residue was to be applied to his, the prisoner’s own use. That the expressions deposed to by Anne Moody, and his own and Mrs. Drysdale’s emotion after his return home, which had told so heavily against him in the examinations before the magistrates, were perfectly reconcilable with this statement,—as, indeed, they were,—and did not, therefore, bear the frightful meaning that had been attached to them. With respect to the change of hats, that might easily have happened, because his hat had been left on entering in the hall passage, and in his hurry, in coming out by the same way, he had no doubt mistaken Berry’s for his own; but he solemnly denied having been in the room, or near the part of the house where his hat was alleged to have been found. This was the gist of the explanation; but, unfortunately, it was not sustained by any receivable testimony in any material particular. True, Mrs. Drysdale, whom everybody fully believed, declared that this account exactly coincided with what her husband told her immediately on arriving home in the post chaise,— but what of that? It was not what story the prisoner had told, nor how many times he had told it, that could avail, especially against the heavy improbabilities that weighed upon his, at first view, plausible statement. How was it that knowing Mr. Bradshaw’s almost insane dislike of himself, he did not counsel his wife to make terms with her uncle, preparatory to her returning to Rodney Place? And was it at all likely that Mr.Bradshaw, whose implacable humour Mrs. Drysdale had experienced on the very day previous to the murder, should have so suddenly softened towards the man he so thoroughly hated and despised? I trow not; and the first consultation on the case wore a wretchedly dismal aspect, till the hawk eye of Mr. Prince lit upon an assertion of Thomas Burnham’s that he had gone to Mr. Bradshaw’s house upon some particular business at a quarter past twelve on the night of the murder, and had seen the deceased alive at that time, who had answered him, as he frequently did, from his bedroom window. “Rodney Place,” said Mr. Prince, “is nine miles from Drysdale’s residence. I understood you to say, Mr. Sims, that Mrs. Drysdale declares her husband was at home at twenty minutes to one?”

“Certainly she does; but the wife’s evidence, you are aware, cannot avail her husband.”

“True; but the servant girl! The driver of the post chaise! This is a vital point, and must be cleared up without delay.”

I and Williams, Sims’ clerk, set off instantly to see Mrs. Drysdale, who had not left her room since her husband’s apprehension. She was confident it was barely so late as twenty minutes to one when the post chaise drove up to the door. Her evidence was, however, legally inadmissible, and our hopes rested on Anne Moody, who was immediately called in. Her answer was exasperating. She had been asleep in the kitchen, and could not positively say whether it was twelve, one, or two o’clock when her master reached home. There was still a chance left,—that of the post chaise driver. He did not, we found, reach Exeter, a distance of three miles only from Mr. Drysdale’s, till a quarter to three o’clock, and was then much the worse for liquor. So much for our chance of proving an alibi!

There was one circumstance perpetually harped upon by our bright, one-eyed friend of the Hunter’s Inn; Cyclops, I and Williams called him. What had become of a large sum in notes paid, it was well-known, to Mr. Bradshaw three or four days before his death? What also of a ruby ring, and some unset precious stones he had brought from abroad, and which he had always estimated, rightly or wrongly, at so high a price? Drysdale’s house and garden had been turned inside out, but nothing had been found, and so for that matter had Rodney Place, and its two remaining inmates had been examined with the like ill success. Burnham, who was excessively dissatisfied with the progress of affairs, swore there was an infernal mystery somewhere, and that he shouldn’t sleep till he had ferreted it out. That was his business: ours was to make the best of the wretched materials at our disposal; but the result we all expected followed. The foregone conclusion of the jury that were empanelled in the case was just about to be formally recorded in a verdict of guilty, when a note was handed across to Mr. Sims. One Mr. Jay, a timber merchant, who had heard the evidence of the postilion, desired to be examined. This the judge at once consented to, and Mr. Jay deposed that having left Exeter in his gig upon pressing business, at about two o’clock on the morning of the murder, he had observed a post chaise at the edge of a pond about a mile and a half out of the city, where the jaded horses had been, he supposed, drinking. They were standing still, and the post boy, who was inside, and had reins to drive with passed through the front windows, was fast asleep,—a drunken sleep it seemed, and he, Mr. Jay, had to bawl for some time, and strike the chaise with his whip, before he could awake the man, who, at last, with a growl and a curse, drove on. He believed, but would not like to positively swear, that the postilion he had heard examined was that man. This testimony, strongly suggestive as it was, his lordship opined did not materially affect the ease; the jury concurred, and a verdict of guilty was pronounced and recorded amidst the death-like silence of a hushed and anxious auditory.

The unfortunate convict staggered visibly beneath the blow, fully expected, as it must have been, and a terrible spasm convulsed his features and shook his frame. It passed away; and his bearing and speech, when asked what he had to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced according to law, was not without a certain calm dignity and power, whilst his tones, tremulous, it is true, were silvery and unassuming as a child’s.

“I cannot blame the gentlemen of the jury,” he said. “Their fatal verdict is, I am sure, as conscientious as God and myself know it to be erroneous,—false! Circumstances are, I feel, strangely arrayed against me; and it has been my fate through life to be always harshly judged, save only by one whose truth and affection have shed over my chequered existence the only happiness it has ever known. I observed, too, the telling sneer of the prosecuting counsel, connecting the circumstances under which I left the navy with the cowardice of the deed of which I stand here accused,—convicted I suppose, I should say. I forgive that gentleman his cruel sneer as freely as I do you, gentlemen of the jury, your mistaken verdict,—you, my lord, the death sentence you are about to pronounce. The manner in which I hope to pass through the brief, but dark and bitter passage lying betwixt me and the grave will, I trust, be a sufficient answer to the taunt of cowardice; and the future vindication of my innocence, not for my own, but my wife and children’s sake, I confidently leave them to Him into whose hands I shall soon, untimely, render up my spirit. This is all I have to say.”

The prisoner’s calm, simple, unhurried words produced a marvelous effect upon the Court and auditory. The judge, Chief Baron Macdonald, a conscientious and somewhat nervous man, paused in the act of assuming the blackcap, and presently said, rather hastily: “Let the prisoner be removed; I will pass sentence tomorrow.” The Court then immediately adjourned.

I was miserably depressed in spirits, which the cold, sleety weather that greeted us on emerging from the hot and crowded court considerably increased. I was thinking,—excuse the seeming bathos,—I was only a clerk, and used to such tragedies; I was thinking, I say, that a glass of brandy and water might not be amiss, when whom should I rudely jostle against but Cyclops, alias Thomas Burnham! He was going the same way as myself in prodigious haste,—his eye bright and flaming as a live coal, and his whole manner denoting intense excitement. “Is that you?” he broke out. “Come along, then, and quick, for the love of God! I’ve missed Sims and his clerk, but you’ll do as well; perhaps better.” I had no power, if I had the inclination to refuse, for the enthusiastic man seized me by the arm, and hurried me along at a tremendous rate towards the outskirts of the city. “This is the place,” be exclaimed, as he burst into a tavern parlour, where two trunks had been deposited. “He’s not come yet,” Burnham went on, “but the coach is to call for him here. He thinks to be off to London this very night.”

“Whom are you talking of? Who’s off to London tonight?”

“James Berry, if he’s clever enough! Look there!”

“I see; ‘James Berry, passenger, London.’ These, then, are his trunks, I suppose?”

“Right, my boy; but there is nothing of importance in them. Sly, steady-going Margery has well ascertained that. You know Margery;—but hush! here he comes.”

Berry—it was he—could not repress a nervous start, as he unexpectedly encountered Burnham’s burly person and fierce glance.

“You here?” he stammered, as he mechanically took a chair by the fire. “Who would have thought it?”

“Not you, Jim, I’m sure; it must be, therefore, an unexpected pleasure. I’m come to have a smoke and a bit of chat with you, Berry,—there isn’t a riper Berry than you are in the kingdom,—before you go to London, Jim,—do you mark?—before you go to London,—ha, ha! ho, ho! But, zounds! how pale and shaky you’re looking, and before this rousing fire, too! D—n thee, villain!” shouted Burnham, jumping suddenly up from his chair, and dashing his pipe to fragments on the floor. “I can’t play with thee any longer. Tell me, when did the devil teach thee to stuff coat collars with the spoils of murdered men, eh?”

A yell of dismay escaped Berry, and he made a desperate rush to get past Burnham. Vainly did so. The fierce publican caught him by the throat, and held him by a grip of steel. “You’re caught, scoundrel!—nicked, trapped, found out, and by whom think you? Why, by deaf, paralytic, Margery, whose old eyes have never wearied in watching you from the hour you slew and robbed her good old master till today, when you dreamed yourself alone, and she discovered the mystery of the coat collar.”

“Let me go,” gasped the miscreant, down whose pallid cheeks big drops of agony were streaming. “Take all, and let me go!”

A fierce imprecation, followed by a blow, replied to the despairing felon. A constable, attracted by the increasing uproar, soon arrived; the thick coat collar was ripped, and in it were found a considerable sum in Exeter notes,—the ruby ring, and other valuables well known to have belonged to Mr. Bradshaw. Berry was quickly lodged in gaol. A true bill was returned the next day by the grand jury before noon, and by the time the clock struck four, the murderer was, on his own confession, convicted of the foul crime of which a perfectly innocent man had been not many hours before pronouuced guilty! A great lesson this was felt to be at the time in Exeter, and in the Western country generally. A lesson of the watchfulness of Providence over innocent lives; of rebuke to the self-sufficing infallibility of men, however organized or empanelled, and of patience under unmerited obloquy and slunder.
Edward Drysdale was, I need hardly say, liberated by the king’s pardon,—pardon for an uncommitted offense,— and he and his true-hearted wife, the heiress of her uncle, are still living, in competence, content, and harmony.


Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1852.

This story was later published in the collection Leaves from the Diary of a Law-Clerk by the Author of Recollections of a Detective Police Officer, London: J.C. Brown & Co., 1857.