Monday, June 12, 1854
John Welton was lighting kerosene lamps along the walls of the Ontario County Courthouse when the first crack of thunder sounded. Stormy skies, black as boot polish, darkened the courtroom beyond its usual gloom. Judge Burnham and his jury required a clear view of the accused inside the steel caging of the prisoner’s dock. The wheels of justice demanded light, so John dutifully provided it.
He was returning a glass chimney to a lamp when he noticed a woman with bewitching eyes and a delicate nose looking at him from over the railing of the ladies’ gallery. She held his gaze for a few unsettling moments before he turned away. While igniting the final wick, he dared to glance overhead. To his relief and disappointment, her focus had switched to the tousle-headed dandy standing trial for larceny. Before heading off to oil door hinges, John’s parting view was of the woman gingerly patting her neck with a white handkerchief.
At noon, gentlemen unwedged themselves from their seats and poured into the lobby where they joined the ladies streaming down from the gallery. John arrived to mop footprints from the wooden floors as the sheriff’s men began escorting the larcenist back to the jail behind the courthouse. Immediately, John spotted a white handkerchief lying below where the woman had been standing.
When the crowd pushed the front doors open, he saw the woman raising her parasol outside. She smiled from beneath its frilled edge as the door eased shut. With a ring of iron keys bumping against his right hip, John loped to a front window and leaned across its sill. She ran through the drizzle to a closed carriage waiting along Centre Street, then gathered her skirts and climbed inside. Before the driver flicked his reins, she peered through the carriage window and waved.
Later that night, in the courthouse garret, John hunched over a candle-lit table while his stew heated on the potbellied stove. He held the handkerchief close to the flame and examined the lace-trimmed linen. The letter H embroidered in one corner reminded him of the needlework his mother had stitched for her mistress before his family left Cork.
Helen? Hilda? Hazel? In made no difference. The woman could never be interested in an old bachelor like him-fifty-nine years old and living in cramped rooms he couldn’t stand up in without banging his head against the ceiling. He held the perfumed handkerchief to his pointed nose. No woman would suffer his austerity.
Wednesday, June 14, 1854
John was shooshing stray cows from the courthouse lawn when he saw the woman dodging carriages as they dropped visitors off for the morning session. She was at least twenty years his junior and fetching, in a blue cape and matching bonnet. His worn-out attire and scuffed boots paled by comparison.
“Mr. Welton?” her sugary voice called out.
She knows my name? John slowly lifted his head.
“By chance, did you rescue my embroidered handkerchief from the courtroom on this Monday past?”
“Might have done,” he said sheepishly. “I’d have to check, Mrs. …”
“Miss Henny Paxton,” she answered, casting a smile at the front of his shirt. “Might I enquire again when court recesses at noon?”
“I suppose.” John later realized her handkerchief had been protruding from his shirt pocket throughout their entire conversation.
After the crowd dispersed for lunch, John straightened chairs for the afternoon hearings. The county sheriff, Nelson Reynolds whistled a tune while his officers removed the larcenist, Daniel Cuthbert, from the prisoner’s dock.
Cuthbert flashed a hungry smile in the direction of the public entrance at the rear of the courtroom, and winked.
John followed his gaze to see Miss Paxton who waited in the doorway with a blush colouring her cheeks. Sheriff Reynolds shoved Cuthbert toward an exit beyond the judge’s bench. John could hear the scrape of leg irons behind him as he crossed the room to meet her. He bashfully drew the handkerchief from his pocket and held it out for her to take.
“You’ve found it!”
Her green eyes made his heart beat like a young man’s. You’re a foolish old codfish, John Welton. Get your mind right.
“This truly is the grandest courtroom I’ve visited,” she said, tucking the handkerchief into her sleeve.
A slow smile spread to John’s eyes.
Miss Paxton leaned toward him conspiratorially. “Might you allow me to sit in the judge’s chair?”
John’s head jerked back.
“Only for a moment,” she pleaded. “We ladies stand shoulder to shoulder in the heat of the upper gallery watching Judge Burnham. I’m curious to know what he sees when he looks up at us.”
“Rules must be abided, miss,” John said. To break them would mean risking his position and lodging.
“Oh dear, I’ve overstepped.” Seconds passed, then Miss Paxton eyes lit suddenly. “I’m told that this courthouse stands on the highest point in Whitby. The view from the cupola must be spectacular. I believe I’ll take it in.” She turned on her heel and set off for the door.
John wrung the broom handle. Just as she reached the threshold, he called out, “Wait! You can’t access the rooftop without me.”
“Oh,” she said innocently. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Moments later, Miss Paxton’s hands folded over her heart as she and John looked out through the windows of the sun-warmed cupola. “Even the unfortunates are basking in God’s grace this day,” she said, nodding toward the prisoners inside the brick wall of the jail yard.
Her reference to the Almighty warmed John’s Methodist heart.
Friday, June 16, 1854
John trimmed the lamps in the second-floor law library and went downstairs, as was his habit, to wish the judge good evening and lock up the courthouse. Judge Burnham stepped out of his office and checked his pocket watch.
“Six o’clock! I could set my timepiece by you, John. And the courthouse is spotless, I might add.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” John answered proudly.
Judge Burnham pulled a folded paper from his vest pocket and passed it to John. “A message from Sheriff Reynolds,” he said before continuing on his way.
John gaped at the mystifying squiggles on the paper. If only he could read.
Long after dark, he paced the garret, fretting over the sheriff’s message. When a faint tapping reached his ears, he shoved the note into his pocket, and carried a candle to the ground floor. Tap, tap, tap. A light flickering through a window at the building’s north entrance, drew John forward until the glow of a familiar face came into view.
Miss Henny Paxton!
John unlocked the door. There she stood, bareheaded with a basket over one arm.
“May I come in?” she asked.
John squinted at the darkness. Tongues would wag if he–a Methodist Church trustee–were seen cavorting with a woman after dark.
“To reward your kindness,” she said, “I’ve brought Johnny cakes, strawberry preserves, and iced tea.”
John desperately wanted to partake of her company, but his sense of duty prevailed. “No visitors after court hours.”
“Tweedle-dee. I’m visiting you, not the court,” she said, stepping close enough for John to smell rosewater rising from her hair.
“Alright,” he relented.
“Brilliant!” she piped and led the way to a bench in the foyer. Six Johnny cakes and as many spoonfuls of preserves later Miss Paxton finished explaining how she’d developed wanderlust while visiting her sister in Port Perry. Her brother-in-law, a wealthy postmaster, arranged for her transport to Whitby as it had been her wish to view the newly opened courthouse.
“Oh my, I’ve been talking about myself far too long. Tell me something about yourself, Mr. Welton?”
“I’m raising funds for the construction of a Methodist meeting house.”
“Our congregation has been meeting at the Free Church on Sunday afternoons. We need our own place to minister wayward souls.”
“Have you enough money?”
John shook his head. “Our congregation donated their last sovereigns to buy the land.”
“I’ll write to my brother-in-law. He’s well connected and I’m very good at talking people into things.”
John’s heart swelled with affection. He presented her with Sheriff Reynold’s note, “I’ve left my spectacles upstairs,” he fibbed “Could you …”
“Of course,” she said with a knowing smile.
“I’m nothing if not discrete, John.” Her eyes skimmed the paper. “Monday will be the final day of Daniel’s trial,” she said, touching a hand to her throat.
“Mr. Cuthbert, you mean.”
“Yes, of course. He’ll attend both morning and afternoon court sessions. Over the lunch hour, Sheriff Nelson is asking to lock him in a steel vault, not yet filled with county records.
While John sighed with relief at the easily accommodated request, Miss Paxton sniffled and shed a tear.
“I was imagining Mr. Cuthbert as a little boy, a guttersnipe with no one to discourage him from mischief, or lead him in Christian matters. He’s alone in the dark without salvation. If I could speak with him alone-in the vault-as a sister might speak to her brother…”
“But John! Think of his immortal soul!” she cried.
John’s lips mashed together. He mustn’t betray the trust of his betters or steer Miss Paxton toward peril. Yet, how could he deny ministry to this bad egg?
“If you refuse me this favour, John Welton, I may lose inspiration to beg my brother-in-law’s financial solicitation for your meeting house.”
His angel had become the very devil, pitting his spiritual strivings against his professional conscience. “The sheriff’s men will never permit it,” he argued.
“I have a plan.”
John sighed heavily.
Miss Paxton squealed and clapped her hands together. “You won’t be sorry.”
He already was.
Monday, June 19, 1854
John could barely lift his head when Judge Burnham bade him good morning. Thoughts of Miss Paxton’s daring scheme consumed him. He even left the cows to graze on the lawn without chastisement.
At twelve o’clock, two officers walked Daniel Cuthbert, in handcuffs and leg irons, to the vault. Hands shaking, John unlocked the steel door and dragged it open. One officer opened the interior door and examined the steel shuttered window with an approving nod. “No chance of public contact here.”
John smiled nervously and backed into the doorway of the vacant office across the hall.
“It’s dark in there,” Cuthbert complained.
“You’ll be out in thirty minutes,” the officer replied, directing him inside.
John turned the key and watched the sheriff’s men depart.
“Are they gone?” Miss Paxton whispered from behind the office door.
“Yes,” John said.
Miss Paxton, eyes sparkling, slipped next to him with a lit candle in her right hand, and a drawstring purse over her wrist.
“You must work quickly. I’ll listen for your knock.” When John opened the vault. Cuthbert’s charming grin gave him pause.
Miss Paxton touched John’s arm. “Relax. God is with me.”
“Where’s your bible?” he asked.
“I’ll somehow manage,” she said and ducked inside the vault.
Twenty minutes later, John pressed an ear against the vault door. Miss Paxton had not yet knocked. Perhaps she and Cuthbert were praying. Yes, that must be it.
He jumped when Judge Burnham stepped next to him.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes sir,” John replied. “I just-”
“We’ll take the prisoner now.” The officers had returned.
John’s heart plummeted.
Pop! Pop! Shots sounded from inside the vault.
“Don’t just stand there, man!” Judge Burnham said.
John fumbled with the keys. He heaved the first door open, then the second. A cry escaped him as Miss Paxton lowered the smoking pistol clutched in her right hand. On the floor next to her open purse, Cuthbert lay bloodied and dead.
“He bilked my father out of his last sovereign.” she said, chin quivering. “I’ve no inheritance.”
In a muddle of tears, John slumped to his knees.
“Cuthbert’s in heaven now,” Miss Paxton called out as the officers led her away. “We prayed before I shot him.”
Originally published in Wunderlit Magazine
Illustration by Zach Tuinman