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Men of Science by Lee Williams

© Lee Williams

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Sir Robert Steer always considered himself a man of science. More than this, he was often flattered to find, in those quiet moments of reflection which crept upon him of an evening, that he considered himself one of the foremost scientific men of his generation. As a youth he had submitted, via his uncle Lord S_____, and with all possible modesty and courtesy, a small paper on combating pox in bantams to the attention of Sir Isaac Newton, and was gratified when the great man pronounced it to be ‘middling good’.

In middle age he retired from a mildly successful political career and settled on his estate at Broadlands, intending to devote himself entirely to the advancement of scientific knowledge and therefore, as he saw it, to the betterment of humanity. It is here, on those high windy cliffs overlooking the English Channel, that I shall take up his tale, along with that of his head gardener, Israel Johns. Two more different men could hardly have been found in all the country, yet the stories of their lives now seem inextricably entwined, as indeed are those of their deaths.

Israel Johns was a man already advanced in years at the time Sir Robert returned to his estate, and certainly he was a man firmly set in his own ways. The title of head gardener had been given him more as an honorific in deference to his late father, a previous and exceptional incumbent of the position, than as any real indicator of rank or authority. The other gardeners left him very much to his own devices, as indeed did all the staff, particularly the maidservants. ‘He has his ways,’ people would say of him, a local trick of understatement which continues to surprise visitors to the region.

Suffice to say, it was generally considered that if folk didn’t trouble Johns, he wouldn’t trouble folk, and the whole of the walled garden had duly been assigned him for a kingdom. Here he pottered throughout the working week, carefully tending an eclectic assortment of herbs and weeds, the loose folds of his face gathered together like a fist in an expression of curious and unflagging intensity.

One of Sir Robert’s first decisions upon returning was to do away with the walled garden.

‘I have cast an eye over the place this afternoon,’ he told his steward, ‘and it seems to me to serve no useful purpose. Besides, the fellow who tends it is a patent rogue, and will be better employed elsewhere.’

He turned swiftly from the steward’s pained expression to contemplate the portico, pleasingly geometric in its Palladian stylings but a good foot too narrow, by his reckonings, to allow access to a modern carriage.

‘There is much here to merit change,’ he said.

It will surprise the careful reader very little, as it surprised Sir Robert’s staff very little, to find that moving Johns from his accustomed habitat did little to improve his disposition or behaviour. In fact, it set in motion quite directly the unusual chain of events which it is my business here to relate.

From the outset, Johns determined to tickle upon the raw nerves of both his master and his fellows, by doing as small a share of the work as was possible. When the Italian Garden was reinstated, he carried one barrow of gravel to the other men's four, claiming that he was incapable of travelling up the steep slope from the Eastern lawn on account of a newly acquired ‘gammy knee’. This necessitated a circuitous route which took him past the wash-house, to the entirely justifiable perturbation of the female staff.

In addition to this, irregularities were noticed in the steward’s assiduously-kept inventory lists, to the effect that a good deal of nails were unaccounted for at the end of each week.

In April of that year, Johns’ cottage was searched on the orders of Sir Robert, and the stolen items, some seven hundred in number, were recovered from his stove.

Now we approach the crux of this unusual story. Sir Robert, as has been noted, was a reformer of considerable vigour and modern methods. When Johns was brought before him to account for his crime, denying it flatly all the while, Sir Robert refrained from passing hasty judgement. For three days he pondered the matter.

On the fourth day he gave Johns the following choice: either be sent before the magistrate, the consequences of which would almost certainly be dire, or submit to Sir Robert’s own experiment in penal reform, an unconventional solution inspired by tales of Byzantine ascetics.

Grudgingly, Johns chose the latter.

So it was that in May of that year Israel Johns began an incarceration within, or rather atop, a most curious prison. A stout wooden pillar, thirty feet high, was erected directly in front of the house, surmounted by a platform just wide enough for a man to lie upon at any angle of his choosing. It was equipped with bedding, a length of rope and two buckets (‘in’ and ‘out’, a local wit had labelled them), and was intended to be Johns’ home for the next month.

‘All a man needs to reform is to be isolated from society, to feel the censure of his fellows, and for his transgression to be made a matter of public knowledge,’ said Sir Robert. He began, within his mind, to draft letters challenging the government to settle upon a cheaper method of achieving this than his own. ‘Gravity is a marvellous gaoler,’ he fancied himself joking, to the delight of his peers.

Johns, however, was largely opposed to reform.

His first few days upon the pillar passed peaceably enough, although some of the servants expressed unease about being watched as they carried out their duties in front of the house. The local parson also voiced concern for the welfare of ‘even the least of his flock’, although this was more for the sake of appearances than any real Christian sentiment, and was salved with the judicious application of brandy.

During the second week of his incarceration, Johns began to show his displeasure rather more openly. He showered colourful abuse upon any who came within earshot of his pillar, showing a good deal of invention in his accusations and little regard for rank or station. Visitors to the house, many invited expressly by Sir Robert to witness this bold new step in judicial practice, left with their eyes and ears opened wide. Reason had no impact on the condemned man, who would scarce pause in his invective to hear it.

Before long he caused a scandal by disposing of one of his buckets, along with its contents, just as Mrs P______ and her daughter-in-law were leaving the house after supper. With the warmer weather approaching, he soon felt emboldened to trim his accoutrements further, casting away every last stitch of his clothing. From this time onward, carriages entered via the eastern approach, and building work on the portico was suspended.

Toward the end of May, Sir Robert graciously decided to cut short Johns’ detention by a week, and approached the pillar to declare an official pardon, judging that he had ‘seen the error of his ways and served his time dutifully’. Johns’ exact response is not recorded but the gist of it was that he declined the offer of a pardon, preferring to remain on his perch where he now considered himself to be comfortably settled. He repeatedly pushed away the ladder, and nothing could be said to talk him down, although Sir Robert persisted until late that night.

So the matter stood for some time. Sir Robert, we must imagine, felt a good deal of embarrassment at this turn of events. As a professed humanitarian (and, by all accounts, a naturally very humane man), he could not be expected to use force in restoring Johns to liberty. Such a thing would be tantamount to an admission of failure in his designs. Still, he could hardly allow him to continue in his current position, especially with the bitter winter months approaching.

So it was that Sir Robert came into the habit of daily renewing his debate with the prisoner, alternately cajoling, threatening, reasoning and pleading. It was said that at times he reached heights of great eloquence, but Johns remained unmoved, responding only with an unanswerable silence, or an unrepeatable obscenity. These discussions gradually began to push all other concerns from Sir Robert’s schedule so that he neglected his duties to the detriment of his estate and his own wellbeing. On several occasions, he even forewent his supper in order to continue what he felt to be a particularly elegant line of attack.

Guests became a rarity. The household staff was reduced to a handful of old retainers and all progressive work on the estate ceased. The last act of the garden staff was to install, by an elaborate system of cranes and pulleys, a sloping roof over Johns’ platform. Sir Robert himself withdrew almost entirely from society and retreated to his chambers. Although he did not say as much directly, it seemed apparent to those who knew him well that shame at the failure of his project was at the root of this uncharacteristic behaviour.

In October, he dismissed the last of his staff and personally closed up the gates to the estate, adamant in his resolve to pass the winter alone in the house, a solitary jailor with a single charge. Lord S______, the last known person to visit the house, found him preoccupied ‘to a most alarming degree’, describing him as being ‘fallen into a state of some disrepair’. At around this time Sir Robert moved his quarters to the Chinese rooms at the front of the house from where, late at night, it was said he could often be heard debating with his prisoner in a low voice, leaning from the casement in his nightshirt.

Here the records peter out, leaving much to our imaginations. It is amusing, but ultimately fruitless, to conjure to our ears the words of possible discussions which may have passed between the two men in the course of that long and darkling winter. Diverting, but perhaps misleading, to summon to our mind’s eye the striking image of the earnest reformer gesticulating and pleading with his surly charge. The truth is a live fish, and a deep swimmer. If we do not hook it when we may, it is gone forever.

We can only guess, then, at what transpired in the months leading up to the discovery of the two men’s bodies, frozen stiff as boards, on top of the platform in the spring of the following year, a ‘strange serenity’ upon their bearded faces. The notoriously wry tongues of the local populace will hardly suffice in assuaging our curiosity, but there seems a certain poetry in the speculation that they found in one another’s company a peace which the wider world had withheld from them.

Almost certainly apocryphal, however, is the speculation that they had come to resemble one another so closely that they could hardly be identified and, for want of a better option, were entombed together in a single grave.

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