By Ed Staskus
William Murphy was a shrewd careful man who knew how to get things done. It was why Prince Albert sent him to Prince Edward Island on the American-built clipper ship Antelope of Boston to kill the man who had tried to kill his wife. It mattered little that he was an Irishman sent to dispatch an Englishman.
“Either bring the little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal back to be hung or put him in the ground where you find him and spare us the trouble,” the consort to Queen Victoria said.
He almost lost his chance when he stepped out of the long boat landing him on the north coast of the island too soon and nearly drowned. The water was deeper near the shore of the cove than anyone thought. He sank to the bottom not knowing how to swim and only made it back up on the back of one of the sailors who knew how to at least dog paddle.
The man he was after was Thomas Spate, a disgruntled veteran of the Crimean War. When he was awarded the Crimea Medal, he threw it away. When he was one of the first soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery in action during the Battle of Balaclava, he thought about throwing it away, too, but kept it. He wore it every day pinned over his heart.
During the war Queen Victoria knitted woolens for the troops and inspected military hospitals, wearing a custom-made red army jacket. When the war ended, she threw a series of balls in her new ballroom. Tom Spate watched from outside, driving himself crazy. He was alone and down on his luck. He blamed everybody except himself for the bad things that happened to him. He walked incessantly, from one end of London to the other. He goose-stepped up and down Hyde Park. Queen Victoria saw him often enough to become familiar with him, although she never approached or spoke to him.
During one of his walks around London he spied a crowd outside Cambridge House, which Queen Victoria and her three children were just leaving. As the carriage left, it came to a stop outside the gate. Tom Spate had taken to carrying two old-fashioned loaded flintlock coat pocket pistols. He walked up to the carriage and pulled both pistols out of his coat. He straightened one arm and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He brought the other pistol to bear and pulled the trigger. It misfired. He had just enough time to strike the monarch on the head with the butt of one of his pistols, the three children screaming for all they were worth, when men from the crowd tore him away from the carriage and beat him almost to death.
Queen Victoria stood up in her carriage and proclaimed in a firm voice, “I am not hurt,” even though she was gushing blood from a deep gash on her forehead. It was violent red on her white fitted bodice.
Thomas Spate was imprisoned tried convicted and sentenced to transportation and twenty years hard labor in the penal colony on Tasmania.
“I would have had the blackguard drawn and quartered,” Prince Albert grumbled.
When he escaped his jailers and disappeared, Prince Albert summoned William Murphy, a mercenary who it was said always got his man. He told his monarch’s right-hand man as much. It took more than a year, but in the spring of 1859, he was making his way soaking wet up the hill from the cove to North Rustico. He knew where Tom Spate was and knew he could take his time. He needed to get out of his clothes. He needed beer and dinner. He needed a good night’s sleep in a feather bed on dry land that didn’t heave-ho all night long. He found the only boarding house in North Rustico and took a room.
Bill Murphy’s man was living on the far side of the Stanley River, nine miles northwest up the coast. The Irishman grew up calling miles chains. His man was 720 chains away. It would take him less than three hours to walk there on the coastal footpath. He had no intention of dragging him back to England in chains. He had every intention of collecting his bounty.
Tom Spate lived alone in a winter log hut he threw together, living in it in all seasons. He had no land to farm and no craft to make his way. He operated a ferry service from one side of the Stanley River to the other. In the winter he closed it down when the water froze, and folks either walked or ice skated across. In January the ice got thick enough that horses and wagons could cross. He bought ice skates, carved sticks with a curve at the bottom, and made homemade pucks. He rented them to youngsters with eggs, butter, salt cod, and potatoes to trade for playing shinny on the ice. It was a game of skating fast and trying to hit the puck between two sticks of wood marking the goal.
Most of North Rustico was Acadian French, and Catholic like Bill Murphy. The north coast was the religious center for the church. St. Augustine’s had been built twenty years earlier. It boasted an 80-foot-high front tower. The harbor was filled with boats and the fishing was good. There were cattle and horses grazing and fields of turnip and cabbage as far as the eye could see.
Piles of mud dotted the fronts of fields. Stopping to rest, he asked a passing man what it was.
“It is mussel mud,” the man, a farmer, said. “The land needs lime to breathe new life into it. We use the mud from bays and riverbeds. It’s filled with oyster shells.”
Bill Murphy didn’t ask why they called it mussel mud. “Do you dig it up?” he asked.
“We go out in canoes at high tide and dam up a small space so we can dig it from the bottom. When we are full, we go back and unload it at low tide.”
“It sounds like a great deal of work.”
“It is, but without the mud we would starve on the farms, both man and beast. I couldn’t keep one horse but for it. Your cow needs one ton of hay to survive the winter. We have been doubling our harvests with the mud. We will have more of it soon, too.”
“We have got a man developing a mechanical digger to harvest the mud in the winter through holes in the ice and carry it across the Island by sleigh. There’s talk that we will be able to increase our crops of hay 5 and 10 times. And then there’s the ice. We cover it in sawdust and put it into an icehouse so it won’t melt, and we can preserve foods that would go bad in the summer’s heat.”
Bill Murphy parted with the farmer, shaking his hand. He liked what he had heard about mussel mud. It was a sunny day and the uplands looked fine to him.
When he got to the Stanley River, he rang a bell hanging from a post. Tom Spate’s face appeared at a window on the other side. He waved and in the next minute was guiding his flatboat across the water, using a rope anchored to oak trees. He pushed with a pole along the riverbed. Bill Murphy paid him his two pennies and put his back to a post as Tom Spate pushed off.
Near the middle of the river Bill Murphy felt for the sidearm in his pocket. He carried the new Beaumont-Adams percussion revolver. The cylinder held five rounds, just in case, although he knew he wasn’t going to miss his man with his first shot. He intended to be standing face to face with him when he dispatched him to his maker. He walked up to Tom Spate.
“Thomas Spate, I have a message for you from our majesty,” he said.
Tom Spate’s face went white as death when the barrel of the gun pressed into his chest, pressing against his Victoria Cross.
“For Queen and country,” Bill Murphy said and pressed the trigger. The bullet rocketed out of the barrel, propelling the medal into Tom Spate’s heart, tearing the spirit and strength out of it, and putting an end to the unhappy assassin’s life.
Bill Murphy stood over him and decided in a moment of keenness he was going to stay on Prince Edward Island. There was nothing in Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom for him other than more killing and waiting for the day he would be the one killed. He had neither wife nor family. He would find a colleen here. He would have sons. He would raise horses fed with abundant hay grown in the good graces of mussel mud. He didn’t love his fellow man, but he loved horses. He bent a knee and using both hands widened the hole in Tom Spate’s chest. He stuck his fingers into the man, feeling for the bullet and the medal. He couldn’t find the bullet but found the Victoria Cross. He yanked the medal cast from the cascabels of two cannons captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopal out of him, wiping the blood on his hands off on the man’s pants. He rolled the body off the ferry and into the river. It bobbed and started floating out to the ocean.
He poled the ferry back to the side he had come from and walked back to North Rustico. In his room he packaged the medal and a letter in a stout envelope. The letter didn’t have a word about the medal in it, only asking for land on the shoreline where he had landed, and the right to name the cove “Murphy’s Cove.”
He posted the letter in Charlottetown, paying a penny to make it a “Registered Letter,” sailing on the Gazette to Liverpool the next week. He hoped to have a reply by the fall. In the meantime, he would start building a house on the western edge of the cove. The land might already be owned by somebody, but it was nearly all forest. Whoever it was, was still waiting for a tenant. When and if he showed up, Bill Murphy was sure he could set him straight.
He sat in his room and lit his Meerschaum pipe. When he was young and poor, he smoked spone, coltsfoot mixed with wild rose petals. Now he smoked good tobacco. He watched the smoke curling up from his pipe of Irish clay.
“All the old haunts and the dear friends, all the things I used to do, the hopes and dreams of boyhood days, they all pass me in review.” It was a song they sang in barracks. He had enlisted in the army while a lad after being plied with drink by a sergeant in a pub. He took the “Queen’s shilling” and there was no going back, especially when he deserted and went to work for himself.
The window of his room faced west. The setting sun slanted in, warming his face. When he was done with his pipe he would go downstairs for white fish, potatoes, and beer. Until then, he would slowly smoke and let his plans unwind themselves somewhere in the back of his mind.
Queen Victoria and Prince Consort, 1859. Painting by George Houseman Thomas.
Excerpted from the upcoming crime thriller “Red Road.”
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”