Bladys of the Stewponey/Chapter 13
THE LAST IN ENGLAND
The old woman conveyed the gown she had taken from her who was to be burnt into a closet where she kept a supply of old garments. Whilst she was absent tears streamed over the pale cheeks of Bladys and a shudder ran through her frame. But by the time Mrs Onion had disposed of the spoil, and was able to return to her, all traces of emotion were past; she was self-possessed as before.
"The cart is already at the Gate, and we must attend her," said the executioner's mother. "I doubt not that we shall have trouble with the creature."
An appealing look from the poor woman, and a clasp of the hand had been given to Bladys, and had been answered by her. Instinct and not reason had told the condemned murderess that there was one heart present that pitied her, that bled for her.
The paroxysms of terror and struggle to be free were past; she had subsided into a condition of stupefaction as the dreaded moment arrived. Despair, like a sudden frost, had enchained all her faculties. She suffered herself to be partly led, partly carried, from the cell, through the Castle yard and gate, and to be lifted into the cart that was to convey her to the spot where she was to die.
Manacles were about her wrists, and an end of the chain attached to them was fastened to a portion of the side of the tumbril. It was deemed advisable to secure her, against another outbreak of frenzied effort to escape.
On her way down the stair of the Castle the unhappy woman held the hand of Bladys. She would not let it go. When it became necessary, at the moment of her being placed in the conveyance, to disengage her hold, she became restive and stretched her arms beseechingly towards Bladys; and yet, not a word had passed between them, and till that morning neither had seen the other.
The chaplain walked by the side of the tumbril, addressing exhortations as best he could; but few of his words were audible, owing to the rattle of the wheels over the pavement, the effervescence of the crowd, and strangely incongruous—the drone of a hurdy-gurdy. The Savoyard had come to Shrewsbury, and regardless of everything else, sought to gain a few coppers by the exhibition of his dancing ape. His efforts to attract attention were in vain, the crowd had other and more interesting matters to engage their eyes and thoughts.
The tumbril was guarded by the javelin men of the Sheriff who himself followed in his coach. The miserable woman looked with staring, wild eyes from side to side, and then into the face of Bladys, who sat beside her in the straw. Then, drawing herself up so as to speak in her ear, and to be heard above the noise, she said:
"There will be a reprieve—a pardon. Tell me there will. They will not really burn me."
The hum of the populace was like the mutter of the sea after a storm, when the rollers come in on the beach, but without a wind to propel them. The hurdy-gurdy was no longer audible. It had been left behind. St Mary's bell boomed, sending throbs of sound overhead that beat against the walls of the house in one street, and came back muffled in recoil.
The street was thronged with people. Some houses had the blinds drawn down and doors shut, and no signs of inhabitants showing. Others had windows, doors, parapet crowded with people. Some lookers-on had awe-stricken faces; others exhibited only curiosity. Few, apparently, had any sympathy with the woman who had been untrue to her husband, and had compassed his death, but some felt that the mode of execution was barbarous. Already at the close of the eighteenth century the notion had begun to be entertained that the punishment inflicted by the law was cruel and disproportionate to the offence, and this feeling manifested itself intermittently where were drawn blinds and closed shops.
Eyes were directed upon Bladys, as well as on the condemned woman. Some asked, "Who is that young female in the cart?"
To which answer was made, "We have been informed that the hangman has been outside of the county to get himself a wife."
"Ah!" the querists would throw in, "he must needs go where he is unknown, for no girl would have him who was aware of his trade."
Then another would remark, "Anyhow, she takes vastly kindly to the business."
"Not so. See how pale she is. Od's life, she might be going herself to execution."
The tumbril arrived at the descent towards the Severn, and those seated in it could see the narrow street, winding among black-timbered and plastered houses, packed with people and the javelin men thrusting and pushing their way with difficulty, so as to effect a clearance and open a road for the cart.
The woman on her way to death was shivering, as though with frost in the marrow of her bones, and her teeth chattered. Turning a ghastly face on Bladys, she stammered, "There is the bridge; there is the—" and with a shriek she threw herself upon the girl who was sitting with her. "Save me! save me! and I will give you something worth your pains. I will give it you; it shall be all your own."
The cry of the woman had produced a sudden lull in the voices. They sank into stillness, only broken by the boom of the bell and the clatter of the wheels over the cobblestones. Now, also, the voice of the chaplain rose, as he recited a penitential psalm: "Wash me throughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my faults, and my sin is ever before me!" When the procession attained the bridge, then the poor woman looked towards the water, and made a spasmodic effort to free herself, with a half-articulate desire in her troubled mind to throw herself into the river. A death by drowning were preferable to that in store for her. But there were boats on the water, and men in the boats, stretching their necks to have a sight of the convoy. Had she cast herself in, she would have at once been fished out; moreover, she had been fastened to the cart by the executioner, who had foreseen some such attempt.
Now there went by a rush of swifts screaming, pursuing one that had robbed a nest, or had been faithless to her spouse. The bird that was chased turned in the air and did battle with its pursuers, and the posse of swifts, regardless of the human crowd below, dashed hither and thither, but a little way above their heads, making a loud and angry din, plucking out feathers from the bird they had combined to punish, and attentive to their own concerns and the execution of their own judgment only.
In front rose the magnificent, half-ruined minster; in our own days nobly restored, to be one of the grandest churches in England. Hard by—among the fragments of the conventual buildings—stands a solitary pulpit of stone, of exquisite design. This was now occupied by a strange figure; it was that of an old man in a patched coat, with a rolling collar and a white cravat. He was gesticulating and declaiming. This man was, in fact, Holy Austin, who had come from Kinver, moved by inner wrath and zeal against injustice in the execution of justice, seizing occasion to address the crowd.
A ring of people had formed round the pulpit, and listened with signs of impatience to him, enduring his diversion of their attention with as little tolerance as a similar crowd near the Castle had shown to the Savoyard and his hurdy-gurdy. Now, as then, the appearance of the principal personage in the tragedy drew away attention at once. Those who had been facing the orator with one accord turned their backs and made a rush to secure good positions near the stake. Rough men, laughing, swearing, scrambled up the pulpit, as the steps were blocked, thrust the speaker into the rear, and appropriated to themselves the positions which commanded the stake. The circle of constables surrounding the place of execution opened to allow the cart to pass within, and in so doing disclosed the pile of faggots, and the post rising above it, to which was attached a hoop that was to clasp the waist of the victim and prevent her from sinking in shame and anguish into the element that surged up from below.
A fire burning in an extemporised grate of iron bars and bricks near the ground, composed of dry wood, blazed merrily, throwing up spirals of flame and a light, pungent smoke. The purpose was obvious enough. At this grate were to be kindled the brands by means of which the pyre was to be lighted simultaneously in three places.
The poor victim, on seeing the flames and smelling the reek which blew in her face, became again desperate, and writhed with such force that it required four men to restrain her.
Her cries, and the sight of the struggle, sent a thrill of terrible ecstasy through the spectators. Even the most callous shuddered. Some turned sick and faint, and elbowed their way out of the crowd, unable to endure more.
When the unhappy creature became visible, in the arms of the executioners, who were by main force lifting her upon the pyre, and when they saw the hoop being riveted about her, then all who witnessed the proceedings uttered a gasp. Those who could see nothing made frantic efforts to elevate themselves by leaping, standing on tiptoe, or grappling such as were taller than themselves. One fond father lifted his little child to his shoulder and believed he was giving him a fine moral object-lesson.
And now the hangman slipped a cord about the neck of the condemned woman and passed it round the stake. She endeavoured to get at it with her hands, but they were fastened behind her back, then to bite it asunder with her teeth, to slip her head under it—any way to free herself from the stricture that was destined to throttle the life out of her.
She gasped, "Stay! stay! I see someone waving his hand. He bears a pardon."
But the executioner's mother answered, "That is but a preacher who is exhorting the people and bidding them take warning by your fate."
"There is a man getting out of a coach. He bears a reprieve."
"That is the sheriff, who comes to see that the sentence of the law be duly carried out."
"Hush! I hear a voice crying! He is declaring that I am to go free."
"That is the chaplain reading the burial service." And the priest's solemn tones rose in her ear:
"In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek for succour, but of Thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased."
"One moment! One moment more! Let me say a word to her."
She signed with her head to Bladys. Then the latter stepped upon the pile of faggots and drew close to the poor woman. She, with ashen face, leaden lips, and starting eyes, turned to her and said, "I have no hope now. It is nearly over. Put your hand into my bosom. They did not find it when they stripped me of my gown. It is for you."
"What is it?"
"What I spoke of before. It is for you only. I cannot die with the secret, and leave it to any one who may chance to find it. You alone have had compassion. You alone pity me. I have none else to think for, to care about. It is for you."
Then Bladys thrust her hand where desired and drew forth a small packet.
"Put it away," sobbed the unhappy woman. "Let none else see it. Let none else have it or any share of it. It is all for you." She panted. Then in a hoarse voice said, "Wipe my face."
With her handkerchief Bladys dried the tears, the sweat of mortal anguish which bathed the livid face.
And that whole vast concourse of sightseers kept silence. There was absolute stillness.
The executioner who stood behind the stake had his hand on the tourniquet and delayed. But there was a glitter in his eye, and he signed to the girl with a movement of his head. Then it was that—moved by intense pity—Bladys kissed the poor victim on the cheek. Instantly a mighty roar, like the bursting of a dam, the invasion of a flood.
Next moment Bladys was snatched from the pyre, plucked down, and thrust back.
Still the roar continued, it swelled in volume, it grew to an ominous thunder. It spurted into articulate cries of "Stone him! Cast him into the fire! Smash the sheriff's carriage! Save her! It is not yet too late."
But it was too late! The woman was dead.
What the people were about was this:—That kiss given by Bladys to her that was condemned to a horrible death was seen by the vast concourse; and that sight had wrought an effect extraordinary, incredible, revolutionary.
Instantaneously it had unlocked and set free all the humanity that had been sealed up in ten thousand hearts. It had struck a film from the eyes of every man and woman present, and they saw plainly, for the first time in their lives, that this execution, with its publicity, its barbarity, was a worse crime than that committed by the woman under sentence.
That pitiful kiss given on the pyre—given in welling-over human love to the poor, broken victim—had let loose the Christian compassion that had been in a death-trance for more than seventeen hundred years. It had been proclaimed as a Divine law by Him who stooped and wrote in the dust, when the sinful woman was brought before Him by her judges. Christian prelates had not felt it stirring when they sent heretics to the stake, nor Christian kings when they had condemned traitors to be drawn and quartered, nor Christian legislators when they adjudicated to the gallows the man who stole a sheep, and the maid who purloined half-a-crown. The excitement, the emotion roused by the kiss of Bladys, as is so generally the case with an unthinking crowd, took a wrong direction. In an explosion of resentment, it vented itself against the hangman who had strangled the woman, against his assistants for igniting the pyre, against the sheriff who had conducted the execution, against the constables who had endeavoured to keep order. But there was more than a roar of human voices. Waves of human beings swayed to and fro actuated by one passion of indignation. They sent up a foam of brandished sticks and hands in agitation, casting stones. There were seen men flying, wands wavering; there were heard cries from such as fell and were trampled on, or were thrust against the blazing pile, and were singed, by such as trod in the oozing tar, or stumbled over the preparatory fire, or were jammed between the wheels of the sheriff's carriage. Yet above all rang the shrill cry of Holy Austin from the stone pulpit.
"My brothers, you do wrong. It is not the hangman who is in fault; he but fulfils the duty for which he is paid. Nor is the sheriff to blame; he sees to the execution of the laws. It is with the inhuman criminal laws of England that the sin lies. They are a disgrace to a Christian land; they are a stain on modern civilisation. You have votes; you send your deputies to Parliament. Unite and insist on this—that such barbarous enactments be swept away."
The kiss of Bladys and the words of Austin were not lost. They did not arouse the multitude, and give direction to their indignation, in vain. They produced their effect beyond Shrewsbury. They had a far more extended effect.
In the same year, 1790, that this poor woman was burnt at Shrewsbury, in the very next session of Parliament, this method of execution was abolished, and the crime of petty treason was struck out of the Statutes.