The Crown Agent, by Stephen O’Rourke, part one: The crimes of Burke and Hare

In the first of four extracts from Stephen O’Rourke’s latest novel The Crown Agent, Mungo Lyon recalls his early years and the summons that changed his life.

The Crown Agent
The Crown Agent

PROLOGUE: Cumbrae Island. Midnight, 2 January 1829.

A storm was gathering over the Firth of Clyde. Flecks of sleet slid across the glass. Above Sandy’s head the lamp launched yet another beam over the seething water. The kettle whistled and he slid it from the hotplate. Then with a well-practised flick he opened the stove and shovelled in some coal.

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He wiped his hands, stretched, and frowned at the storm glass. The liquid inside, clear all day, was frosting quickly now, and as if in answer the wind rose with a wolf’s howl, licking round the tower. It was going to be a long shift, but he’d see it through till noon then hand over to Tom, presently sound in his bunk.

Stephen O’Rourke QC, author of The Crown Agent

Sandy lifted the Greenock Advertiser and tried to concentrate on the shipping notices. An inky little three-masted schooner accompanied every entry on the yellowing paper. Hunter, sailing for Madeira on the third. Cormorant, bound for Bermuda the same day. Minerva, voyaging to Cape Town the day after. He patted a few pockets in search of his pipe and tobacco. A bell clanged in the distance.

He stopped. Yes. There it was again. And again. But not regular, he thought, his stomach tightening. Haphazard. Like something unhinged. He leapt to the window. Beam after beam swept the water. The clanging continued. Round came the beam again, and suddenly there it was. A stricken ship, her sails in rags.

Sandy’s whole life was the lighthouse, and he knew the King’s Regulations like the words of a song. Grabbing a hurricane lamp he clattered down the spiral stairs to light the beacon.

‘Tam, wake up man! There’s a ship foonderin’ oot in the firth! A schooner, must be a trader!’

The wind whipped the grass at his ankles as he trudged uphill, the lighthouse beam raking the sky. For a moment he stopped, turned and raised a rain-lashed hand to his brow. The clanging drifted in the wind.

‘It can only be a mile out at most,’ he thought.

Breathing hard, Sandy reached the beacon. A wall of rain drenched him as he set the lamp down and fumbled for a rag. But just as he turned to light it, he heard footsteps.

‘Tam here, quick man. Gie me a hand wi’ this lamp, will ye?’

If Sandy had managed to light the beacon on Cumbrae that night, Dan Porter at the Cloch Lighthouse ten miles to the north would have relayed the signal along the coast to the Custom House at Greenock. There, the officer on watch would have noted the incident in the log and dispatched a team of marines to investigate. At first light a rescue mission would have been mounted. But as it was, the stricken ship was not reported until late the following morning and Sandy never did light the beacon, because those words proved to be the last he ever spoke before he was struck dead with a single blow of the lighthouse axe.

ONE

Some stories can never be told. Some mysteries are so rooted in darkness they can never be set down, even now, here in my study, where a cheerful fire crackles in the hearth. But truth is as truth does and in these, my winter days, it’s time to reveal the secrets of my life. I begin more than fifty years ago, with the mission that led me far beyond the compass of my youth. Those memories, despite the warmth of this fire, plunge a cold blade of fear through to my very bones.

I was sick at heart with Edinburgh. My father, a senior officer in the East India Company, had shipped me home aged seven. Since then I’d measured out my life first at the Morningside School under the strict eye of the Dominie, then as a student at the College, and finally as a surgeon in the city’s Infirmary. My path had been steady, my future assured. But each evening as I turned for home I’d think of the empire beyond Britain’s shores.

‘Mungo Lyon,’ I’d sigh, ‘there surely must be more to life than this.’

Then, on a bitter morning in January 1829, everything changed because of a pair of Irish navvies named William Burke and William Hare.

I was twenty-seven and alone amid the hanging mob on the High Street. Someone pulled a handle and Burke dropped like a sack. His neck snapped like a dry twig leaving the rope quivering. His last breath fogged the air, then disappeared with the mob’s cheer. That was the end of Burke, but not of an affair which had shaken the city’s medical Establishment to its core.

Just a few weeks earlier Burke and Hare had stood trial for mass murder, but Hare turned King’s Evidence against his accomplice and walked free. They’d sold their victims’ bodies to my friend and mentor Doctor Robert Knox, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the city’s most celebrated anatomist.

Knox was ruined, and shortly after the trial was expelled from the city. I admit it, of course. He, together with other surgeons (whom I won’t name, even all these years later), paid handsomely for bodies from the Resurrectionists.

Nobody approved of grave robbing, but the medical students needed to practise dissection. How else could they learn? The arrest of Burke and Hare for mass murder, however, and the Lord Advocate’s investigation which followed, made villains of us all. Folk spat at my feet as I entered the Infirmary, and my noble art became a thing of shame. Then came the Procurator Fiscal’s questions, but time and again I denied everything and I thus avoided any part in the trial.

Tomorrow: The Proposal