This piece tries to imagine the first of two different ends for the villain of my novel, Alan Calvert. The narrative voice has switched to the first person present tense to show his state of mind on the scaffold outside Newgate Prison in 1793. He’s to suffer a traitor’s death (this would no longer be hanging, drawing and quartering by that time, but hanging and beheading post-mortem) with four of his closest confederates, including Lucas’s father Will Thorpe.
The first comers arrive at four am and by seven every seat and vantage point is taken, the better window seats, where gentlefolk sit, fetching three guineas. Streets and alleyways, windows and roofs are alive with faces, looking, at a distance, like thousands of dots on a pin-cushion. The object of their view – the scaffold – has been completed by torchlight the night before, and stands pale as the pale horse of death itself opposite the Debtors’ Door in the middle distance. Most are not as near as they’d have liked, for a barricade of horse-guards and infantry keeps them well back. And they’ll do what the soldiers admonish them to do – keep their distance! – or those boards on long poles hard by, conveniently hidden on the Lord Mayor’s orders, will be raised, informing them, or those among them who can read, that the Riot Act has been read and they must disperse immediately.
But so far they have been orderly and quiet, and the appearance of the executioner means patience will soon be rewarded. The stocky little man in black is carrying a ladder and a bucket of sawdust as he jauntily mounts the scaffold, the former to climb and tie us to the beam, the latter to soak up our blood. Next his assistants carry our coffins and place them in a row where the sawdust is strewn, some more of which is thrown into the coffins to lessen seepage. The preparations are complete.
I’m the first to be out of his cell. Pale but composed I step into the prison courtyard, not to the muffled roar of the crowd beyond the wall but a rich chorus of birdsong, whose beauty is incongruous to the point of cruelty. Ironically we’re to die on the first of May, a day which epitomises spring; the giving of life, not the taking of it. And as I look at the sky, which holds the makings of a fine day, I know that my May Day garland is to be a halter, and the man who is to place it round my neck stands before me with thinly-veiled patience.
‘A fine day I think,’ my gallows humour says as he ties my hands.
‘Fine indeed,’ he answers blandly, and leads me to the block to have my irons knocked off. He’s getting my weight and measure as he looks me up and down. I’m thinner and lighter than I’ve ever been, I tell him with a smile, and take my place on the bench nearby. Glancing up again I take a sharp intake of breath, a last taste of freedom. But it’s only the ghost of freedom, and when I scratch my itching chin I smell the pungent truth of the hemp around my wrists.
Attention, by now, has switched to Hardwick, who’s assumed an air of gaiety. That’s the spirit, Dick, well done, and I watch him smile as they pinion him and remove his shackles. For what it’s worth to either of us, he joins me on the bench. No hard feelings, Alan, no hard feelings ever again, I know he’s thinking as he sits down.
Brothers is next, a spring in his step that’s almost a dance.
‘The guard said he’d turned queer,’ remarks Hardwick, as the figure in the pepper and salt jacket and dirty cap capers about the yard.
‘Poor Brothers.’ I’m watching his mood swing abruptly from elation to despair as his hands are roped. And as they knock off his irons he laughs and shouts, then walks and stands alone in the corner with a harried look.
Judging by his manner, Dawkins has changed too. Composed and silent, he says with dignity as he joins us: ‘All will soon be well.’
Thorpe is last to appear, and last is most surprising of all. Accompanied by the Reverend, the negro is silently praying as they take him to the block.
‘The bugger’s gone to God,’ says Hardwick, and spits upon the cobbles.
White man’s Christianity, I’m thinking – how has he squared that with his slave culture spiritualism? But when I think about it further, I begin to see how things stand. Thorpe, like those black slaves he champions so devoutly, must have mixed plantation godliness with magical superstition very early on. There’s consistency in his life after all, if only between the beginning and the end. In between has come experiment, waywardness, and rejection; deliberate deviation from a road he would one day rejoin. He’s like Phoebe in that respect – she too has shunned her privileged upbringing to be poor and atheistic alongside me. Will she too go back to the fold when the time is right? Measured by such a standard, she and Thorpe are bigger hypocrites than Mister Pitt, a consistent reactionary at least. Perhaps we’re all hypocrites in the end, I sigh, trying hard not to judge. I mustn’t blame them, not now, not at this late hour. Somewhere between my own beginning and end, one was my friend and the other my wife: that’s all that matters.
‘Would you care for a glass of wine?’ asks the Under Sheriff interrupting my thoughts.
I try not to chafe at his authority. ‘No thank you,’ I answer, watching as he proffers the tray to the others and meets with the same refusal.
‘Wine! They offer us wine!’ declares Hardwick, incredulous.
‘I expect it’s customary,’ I say, moved to pity when Brothers takes a glass and stands there clutching it in misery and fear. When the guard chivvies him to drink it, he takes a gulp and laughs uncontrollably.
‘Poor bastard,’ growls Dawkins, and hangs his head.
‘Poor all of us,’ I say, rising as the ceremonies begin.
‘Will you shake hands with me now, Alan? We might not get another chance,’ Dawkins says.
‘Goodbye my friend.’ I clasp his roped hands, then Hardwick’s too, as he offers his. ‘Goodbye Dick’ I say, almost adding ‘God bless you.’
The Reverend is on his way to the tall stout door, his Bible open at the relevant page as he drones and groans. The Sheriff is signalling the prisoners to follow in the clergyman’s wake, and when the five of us are in line behind him, he and the other officials take up the rear. A bald man in a dirty apron unbolts the door; the people’s excitement billows in.
‘I am the Resurrection and the life …’ says the Reverend as the door gapes wide and we, the people’s entertainment, pass through.
The immense crowd falls silent at the sight. Every hat and bonnet is doffed, turning the massed heads from breathless black to white. The executioner leaps up cat-like on to the scaffold to greet us afresh. The bells of St Sepulchres start to toll.
First out of my cell and now first to mount the steps, but stumbling slightly. I feel myself flush with shame, yet what’s this? – a human touch, a friendly pat from one of the assistants. Another thrusts an orange in my hands, and the same to the rest behind. Hardwick, taking his orange and sniffing it, catches my eye and winks.
‘Not long now, my old cock-o’-wax!’ he shouts, and I swap my look of hardened obduracy, so long-practised, for a warm smile. Brothers, some way to my left, is elated again, entertaining the crowd by stamping his feet, and affecting little dashes as if he can’t wait to be hanged. Dawkins, on the other side of him, is staring at the crowd in fixed abstraction, while Thorpe, whom none of us can bear to look at, is praying devoutly with clasped hands and uplifted eyes.
‘Leave me in peace,’ I say, when the Reverend offers his consolations one last time. I refuse the hood too from the executioner, who replies jokingly, as he hooks the rope round my neck, that he hopes I won’t refuse that.
‘God bless you!’ someone yells from the crowd, and I manage a small bow.
I turn towards Snow Hill, then Ludgate Hill, then Smithfield – nothing but faces, livid and white, in all directions. To think that I’m so famous! It seems as if all London is watching me. But is she watching me? It’s on her account that I’ve refused the hood, though I needn’t have bothered; it’s impossible to spot anybody in that rabidly-attentive mass. Still, she might be here, she might … Even though I seem deformed, stooped and hunchbacked because of the rope, I hope she’s here. I love her, and I love the child in her belly, my child. Yes, mine! Who’s else could it be? Oh, no, surely not! …
‘Well if there is a God,’ I hear Hardwick say to the Reverend, ‘I hope he’ll be more merciful than you buggers down here have been!’ He winks at me again, but I’ve lost all urge for confederacy. Fate has decreed that I spend my last moments fretting. I’m thinking of Phoebe – why has my wife not visited me? I suck on my orange; the sweet tang of the fruit triggers self-pity. The tears in my eyes are for me, and why not? – I deserve them …
‘It’s almost time. Would you like to say a few words?’ asks the Sheriff, whose oval face is blocking my view of the hungry crowd.
Should I say something? – for posterity? The Under Sheriff stands ready with pencil and pocket-book but I can’t think of anything to say. Am I, their leader, the only one to stay mute? I can’t be the loudest, not now, not here. Let that distinction go to Brothers, who is shouting hysterically about not wanting to leave his clothes with people who aren’t his friends.
‘Shut up Brothers!’ Dawkins yells. ‘We can die without all this noise.’ The Under Sheriff, noting every word the prisoners say, eagerly scribbles this down. But not my words, not yet, not ever in what little time remains to me in this life. Do I mean it?
‘Well?’ the Sheriff prompts, as the executioner works his way along the line, making final adjustments to halters and caps.
Suddenly Hardwick begins to sing at the top of his voice. The familiar line – ‘Oh give me death or give me liberty!’ – inspires me to shout, even more loudly than he, ‘Let the world know that I have been sincere in my endeavours! I die a true friend of liberty!’
The Sheriff frowns and turns away.
‘Five past eight,’ he mutters to his note-taker, and gives the executioner a firm nod. My blood thrills, my heart knocks. Dying is harder than I’ve imagined, and so much crueller than birth. As the mechanism creaks and rumbles, I think of who might be waiting for me on the other side. There’s no one I care to see, not even my mother. I close my eyes, and the drop falls.
They say your life flashes before you at the end, and it’s true. Time plays the joker, it stretches itself as only time can; turns seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, days into weeks, but only as it would in a dream. And this is death’s dream, my long, but really short, goodbye.
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