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PETTY TREASON

On the following morning, at a very early hour, Mrs Onion unlocked the door into the room of Bladys, and knocked sharply. The girl immediately withdrew the bolt and opened.

"Are you in the same mood as last night?" asked the hangman's mother. "Perchance, then, with the journey you were off your reason."

"I am of the same purpose."

"Then," said the old woman, drawing her thin lips against her teeth, "when I give you a command you will obey. Had you said, 'I am Luke's wife,' then I would have answered, 'You are fatigued with travelling; take your ease and repose this day through.' But as it pleases you to be so humorous, then I must lay on you my injunction and expect you to do as I bid. Therefore I say it is my pleasure that you attend me."

"I follow," said Bladys. "Whither?"

"To the Castle. The Foregate is connected with the Castle by a passage in the wall that I showed you overnight."

"I follow and obey."

Thereupon the executioner's mother stepped forward and Bladys followed after her dutifully.

The old woman led along the corridor of stone, stone-paved, and ascending by steps. She mounted a stair of stone, thrust open a door and entered a vaulted chamber in which stood the gaoler and his assistant, as though awaiting her. The former was shaking a bunch of keys, impatient at being delayed.

"She is less troublesome now—that is to say, she is less vociferous in her cries," said the gaoler. "She has made a prodigious noise all through the night. Nothing of that disturbs my sleep, but the other prisoners complained. I have told them that she is to be removed at nine o'clock, and they are vastly satisfied to learn it."

"Open the door," said the old mother.

The turnkey did as he was required, and both were admitted to the cell.

Mrs Onion looked round. There was not much light entering through the small window high up, and which looked north.

"She is gone from here. I do not see her!"

"Oh, she is yonder, assuredly enough. The creature is crouched between the bed and the wall, in the corner. She thinks, poor fool, that she can hide herself and that we shall overlook her."

Then kneeling on the bed, he plucked away the coverlet which the woman had drawn over herself, when she had jammed herself into the cranny where she hoped to find concealment. He laid his hand on her shoulder, not unkindly, and remonstrated with her.

"Now, mistress, this is rank folly! Come forth as a reasonable creature, and do not hug yourself with such notions as that you can escape."

The miserable woman was frantic with terror. Her hair, that was naturally a rich and lustrous chestnut, had fallen about her face and shoulders, and was tangled, sodden, and had lost all its gloss.

"Come now," said the gaoler, "forth from this. You are behaving as a witless child. Pluck up a little courage, and, as a brave woman, face what has to be encountered."

Then she burst into a succession of shrieks.

"I will not die! I cannot die! I am young. I have but twenty-one years. I have but just begun to taste the pleasures of life. I will not die! You shall tear me limb from limb before I am drawn from this place. And to burn! To burn! To burn!" She thrust her fingers through her hair, then cast herself down on the pavement, and scrambled under the bed, with her face to the floor.

"Help me to remove the pallet," said the turnkey. "She has but a mean spirit. A gentlewoman should show more. She should blush to be such a coward."

"Come forth!" ordered Mrs Onion. "You are crushing your gown, and it takes half the worth out of it. It is appointed to all to die, to some early, to others late."

With much difficulty the assistant and his master drew the wretched creature forth, and brought her into the midst of the cell. She would not, or could not, stand.

Her face was soiled with tears, and the stain of a carnation ribbon had come off upon her wet fingers, and had been smeared on her cheeks, that were themselves flaming with the fever that possessed her, flared in her eyes, and distracted her brain.

"I cannot endure fire!" she pleaded in a broken voice between sobs; "look at my finger. I have burnt it—but a small place. I held it to the lamp to feel what fire was. I could not bear it for a second. It made me mad. It was but a little place; it has not raised a blister. How then can I endure that my whole body should burn?"

She gasped, turned her face about, sharply looking from one to the other eagerly, for a token of reprieve. Her breath was hot as fire.

"It will begin at the soles of my feet; there, there, worst of all! And then if a flame springs up to my eyes! They will bind my hands that I cannot hold them up to save my face."

"See this now," said the executioner's mother; "you conceive of matters far worse than they really are. There is, indeed, no requirement that one who is sentenced for petty treason shall not really burn alive, but we are God-fearing and kind-hearted people, and my son is ready to strangle you before the fire takes hold on your body."

"He will strangle me! How—when—with what?"

"Be cheerful, and do not be alarmed without cause. He will loop a stout twine round your throat and the stake. Then with a bit of stick he will give a twist. He has a strong hand, and all will be over. There was a case a few years ago when the executioner failed to do this in time, and recoiled before the flames, so that the woman was burnt alive and was long a-dying. But he was a sad blunderer. My son is not like that. He never fails to do a good deed promptly and right thoroughly."

Then the unhappy prisoner shrieked: "I will not be throttled with a string! I love my life. Life is sweet—it is sweet—and death is more bitter than wormwood."

She covered her heated face and swung from side to side, moaning, the gaoler and his assistant holding her, one on each side.

"Why did my mother force me to marry? I did not know him. I could not care for him. I had no wish to be a wife, but she drove me to it; she tortured me into it. Why do they not burn my mother instead of me? It was her doing. I would never have done him any harm, but that they forced me to be his wife. Why did he take me when he knew that I loved Paul? My mother knew it. He was told it. I swear that I did not mean to kill him. I swear that I purposed only to make him sleep whilst I went away with Paul. I did not know that nightshade would kill him; I thought it would make him sleepy. They will let me off when they know that. I did not have a fair trial. I was not told what was against me. I ask to be tried again. I am unjustly condemned. I will not die! No, I will not die!"

She started to her feet, by a sudden, convulsive effort released herself, and ran round the room, beating the walls with her hands; then she made a rush at the door, but was intercepted by the under-gaoler.

"Let me out!" she cried. "I will go to the judge, and tell him it was a mistake. I did not purpose to kill him. It is he that commits murder when he sentences me to death."

Again she fell into a paroxysm of grief.

Then Mrs Onion said to Bladys, "Lay hold on her, and force her to be seated on the bed."

The girl obeyed. The power to resist further had left the prisoner after her last desperate effort to escape. Assisted by the turnkey, the girl succeeded in controlling her. She took hold of both her wrists.

"Hearken quietly to me," said Mrs Onion. "I have seen many women suffer, but none have cut so poor a figure as yourself. In one half-hour you must be conveyed through the streets. If you have any sense of decency you will be ashamed to be seen as you are, with bedabbled face, stained cheeks, and tangled hair. A woman desires to look her best, even when going to her death. You are a gentlewoman, and should set an example. As a person of fashion you should not appear in this disordered state. Moreover, consider that every woman would wish to awaken regard, pity. Such as you are now, you will provoke none; people will protest, 'She is grumpish, and the world is well rid of such baggage—let her burn.' But if you will permit me to comb your hair, to wash your face, and to take off this habit, that is altogether too smart and unsuitable, and draw over you one of plain serge that is more seemly,—then it will wear another aspect. Folk will look at you with approval, and mark that you are young and pretty, and say that it is a prodigious pity that you were not also honest."

"I cannot—I will not be burned!"

"That gown," said Mrs Onion, "is far too good to be thrust into the fire. Waste is sinful, and you cannot go before your Maker with a fresh crime on your soul. Moreover, it is my perquisite."

"I do not heed my gown. It is I—I—this tender flesh of mine. See how thin the skin is on my throat. I cannot endure it. I feel the smallest prick of a pin!"

Then someone rapped at the cell door. The gaoler opened, and the chaplain appeared.

"My poor woman," said he, "I have come to direct your mind to things above."

"I will not be burnt!" shrieked the woman. "And they threaten to throttle me. I will not be throttled and I will not be burnt. Why is Paul not here? Why has he done nothing to deliver me? Why should I die and not he?"

Then the tears streamed over her cheeks, and being unable to wipe her eyes with her hands, she thrust her wet face against the bosom of Bladys.

Thereupon said Mrs Onion to the chaplain,

"I must ask you, reverend sir, to withdraw a little while—we have to unclothe her and re-cover her with a properer garment. We must wash her face and turn up her hair."

Again the poor creature screamed and battled.

Mrs Onion lost patience.

"This passes all reason. Time is hastening on. Listen! Do you not hear? There is the bell of St Mary's. There are people coming from all quarters, and the execution cannot be stayed to please your humours."

The tolling of the great bell was audible above the hum of voices of people crowding the street.

Awed by the sound, the solemn tone of the bell calling to prayers for the soul of a dying woman, the poor creature desisted from her fruitless efforts, and fell into a sullen lethargy; yet for how long this would last there was no saying. Therefore Mrs Onion hastened to divest her of the gown she wore, and to invest her in an ill-fitting, shabby, darned dress that was of no value.

That accomplished, the chaplain was called in, and the rest withdrew.

When the executioner's mother and Bladys were alone in the stone passage, then the old woman turned to her young companion, and said with a sneer:

"Now you know what it is to commit petty treason. It is no play. Now you have seen what is the agony of the expectation of death. You shall see further the agony of death itself. What think you of petty treason?"

"I think, nay, I am confident," answered Bladys, "that I would gaily endure the same condemnation, rather than be your son's wife. Woe betide him if he venture to forget that I am a servant and no wife." She smiled a frozen smile. "How like you this gown? Passingly? It is the best that I have. It is that wherein I was wed. Do you covet the gown? Then send your son Luke to kiss me, and it is yours by the same title as that you now carry on your arm."