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VASHTI

The day of an execution was one that gave satisfaction alike to turnkey, hangman, and their assistants, for it was to them the conclusion of a harvest reaped out of the unfortunate who had fallen into their hands, and in the evening it was customary with them to make merry over the plunder and to keep their harvest home.

No sooner was a prisoner sent to the Castle than a system of pillage began, to which he and his relatives were subjected, and which did not cease till he was discharged or executed.

Within the gaol, his comforts, almost his necessaries of life, had to be bought of the head turnkey. A poor prisoner fared badly. He had a miserable cell, where he was abandoned to filth and famine. The discomforts of a recalcitrant prisoner were rendered daily more acute till his resistance was broken, and he submitted to the exactions of those who held him in control; till he allowed himself as a human wreck to be boarded and pillaged until nothing was left on him that was worth taking. He had to pay for his food, for his drink, for clean bedding, for fuel, even for privacy. The gaoler was well aware that the most intolerable annoyance to which he could subject those of a better class was to crush them into a common day-room with the worst criminals of the most degraded order, and to associate in one bedroom the most unsuitable companions. Consequently he exacted a heavy fee for the privilege of a separate apartment. Nor was it the gaoler alone that preyed on the victim of Justice, so-called. A criminal condemned to death was at the mercy of the hangman, who was to be bribed to "turn him off" speedily, and who, unless satisfied, might prolong his agony. The woman sentenced to death by fire had to buy the concession of being strangled at the stake; the man who was to be hung purchased with gold every inch of the drop.

Visitors out of curiosity could always buy permission to interview the prisoner; relations—mother, wife, children—could obtain no parting embrace without having fed the gaoler.

The system of flaying was not confined to the period of life; it was continued after death, and that no longer metaphorically. In the case of hanging, the executioner sold the rope at a guinea an inch, and even took the skin off the dead man's back and chest, and vended it in squares as charms that were eagerly purchased by the superstitious. The hangman claimed the clothing of those sentenced to death as a customary perquisite, in addition to the fee paid him by the County for the execution. In the Orient the vultures swoop upon the dead, but in the West, England not excepted, before the improvements due to the exertions of Howard, the prisoner was a prey to human vultures from the moment that he passed through the gates before his trial.

The supper given by Luke Onion and his fellow-vultures on the evening ensuing the execution for petty treason was not lacking in boisterousness, although not wholly as free as on former occasions. The cuts and bruises received by Luke and his assistants somewhat damped their hilarity, and the manifestation of popular indignation had left on them a vague and uneasy suspicion that a revolution in the method of treatment of criminals, and a modification of the barbarity of medieval methods, was not improbable—and any such change would menace their interests.

But although their spirits might have a brush of gloomy forecast, yet this in no way affected their appetite, and least of all their thirst.

They ate ravenously and drank heavily, and were served by Mrs Onion and Bladys.

The pain and agonies of his cut scalp made Luke silent, they gave a feverish glitter to his eye, and brought hot rushes of blood into his cheeks. His hand was unsteady, and he occasionally opened his lips to speak, then checked himself. His silence was observed and interpreted by the guests in their own fashion. Although linked together by common interest, and common resistance to all improvement in the condition of prisons and the treatment of prisoners, yet among themselves existed much jealousy, spite, and rancour.

"How now, Luke Francis?" shouted Nicodemus, the gaoler. "What is the truth in this tale that is in every mouth in Shrewsbury—that you fell among thieves, who despoiled you of your raiment and left you half-dead?"

"And further," cast in Jarrock maliciously, "that they kissed your wife and capered with her on the green, whilst you played the fiddle?"

"A lie!" said the hangman surlily.

"To be sure, it is a lie throughout," said Abraham. "We know the master too well to believe that he would allow himself to be waylaid, and to have his pockets turned inside out by highwaymen."

"I do not deny that footpads stopped the carriage," said Onion, in confusion and anger.

"Nor that you were robbed?" asked Nicodemus.

"Nor that your wife was kissed?" inquired Jarrock.

"The tale I have heard," said the under-gaoler, "is that Mr Onion showed no fight."

"It is true that I was robbed," said Luke, with flaming face. "I was taken by surprise. I was with my wife. I had just left the altar, where we had plighted our vows. Who, under such circumstances, would not be liable to be thrown off his guard?"

"I could not have believed," said Nicodemus, "that Luke Francis Onion, Executioner to the Counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire, should have suffered himself under any circumstances to be stayed by footpads and not fire a pistol or brandish a cutlass in self-defence. You were armed, I doubt not."

"I was caught before I had time to get at my pistols," said the hangman, every muscle in his face and hands working with vexation and shame. "Change the matter; this is distasteful to me."

"Distasteful it may be," pursued the gaoler. "Yet it is one that concerns us all, for ours are sister callings. No marvel if the vulgar mob rose to-day against the ministers of justice who were too pusillanimous to defend themselves against open and notorious breakers of the law."

"By heaven, I swear," roared Onion, "it shall not pass unpunished! Caught I was, and robbed as well; I do not deny it. But I exult in the fact—I exult in it for this reason—that these rascals have delivered themselves into my hands. Rats may eat the meat strewn for them a dozen times with impunity—but the thirteenth time it is mingled with poison. These highwaymen have long been a terror in the land. Hitherto they have baffled pursuit. They have escaped all officers sent to apprehend them; and for a good reason, because none knew who they were, so carefully did they cover their traces, so well-concealed their runs, and so well-chosen their haunts."

"Well, and now?"

"And now I know where to find them, and can put my hand upon their captain."

"You know them?"

"Ay! I know their ringleader, John Poulter, alias Baxter. You have heard of him?"

"Ay! Who has not? What is his real name?"

"I have learned it. I know where he lives. But I should never have discovered either had not my carriage been stayed. Had I not gone down to Kinver parish and tarried a fortnight at the Stewponey, I should not have known."

"Listen to this," jeered Nicodemus. "He sings two strains. First he admits that he was stayed and robbed against his will; now he would have it that the whole was a trap laid by him with vast ingenuity to catch the rats. If you know who the captain is—what's his true name—speak it; and we will believe you."

"I will not tell you," shouted Luke, in a fever of irritability. "I am not singing two strains. The calash was stopped, and we were forced to descend from it. I was plundered, I do not deny I that; nor do I assert that it was premeditated and planned by myself. I will add that the Captain danced a measure on the turf with her yonder." He indicated Bladys with his thumb. "An Italian with a hurdy-gurdy was constrained to play a tune. In the moonlight they danced; and as they danced he held up his right hand, thinking to appear graceful in his postures. Then I perceived that his forefinger was crooked, stiffened into a pothook. I knew him by that, immediately; for I had played at bowls on several evenings with one who had such a crooked finger at the Stewponey, and then he had been unmasked. Thus I came to know who he is, and what his right name. When I choose, which shall be soon, I shall have him. All I tarry for is warrants made out in three counties, so that he may not slip away over the border and escape us."

"Is he a gentleman, Luke?"

"Ay, he and the rest."

"Hurrah! mates. There will be meat on his bones!"

Ap Rice, the apprentice, willing to stand well with his master, said:

"Let him laugh who wins. It was worth the loss of a few crowns to be able to take so great a thief."

"He is not yet taken," said Nicodemus.

"He will be by the heels in a week."

"Ah!" said Abraham, who delighted in girding at his superior, "if but a few crowns had been taken, that would have been nothing, it would have been repairable. But it is commonly reported that Captain Poulter robbed the master of something he can never recover, do what he may."

"What may that be?" asked one of the turnkeys.

"If all that is told be true," said Jarrock, with a malicious smile on his lips, "the Captain not only took a kiss from the bride, but stole her heart away as well, and so effectually secured it, that now she will not allow Luke Onion even to look into her eyes, even to wish for a taste of her lips."

"Here comes the punch! the primest pine-apple rum," shouted the hangman, as his mother and Bladys entered, bearing the steaming bowl.

Then one of the gaolers sang:

"Come all you old minstrels, wherever you be,
With comrades united in sweet harmony.
Whilst the clear crystal fountain thro' England shall roll,
Give me the Punch Ladle—I'll fathom the Bowl.
Let nothing but harmony reign in your breast;
Let comrade with comrade be ever at rest.
We'll toss off our bumper, together we'll troll,
Give me the Punch Ladle—I'll fathom the Bowl."

Then Jarrock, with an ugly sneer and a wink, and with finger pointed first to Onion and then to Bladys, sang in a harsh tone—

"Our wives they may bluster as much as they please,
Let 'em scold, let 'em grumble, we'll sit at our ease.
To the ends of our pipes we'll apply a hot coal,
Give me the Punch Ladle—I'll fathom the Bowl."

"Drink the health of the bride!" shouted Nicodemus. "Come, mistress. Take your place at table, and here's to your lord and master. Give the lie to Jarrock's scandal. Here's to the bride!"

"Come on, mistress!" called Abraham. "If you will not sit by Luke, I will make a place for you by myself. We spent some pleasant hours together between Stourton and Shrewsbury."

"Sit down!" shouted all. "Luke, make her honour and obey if she cannot love. Sit down. We are going to toast you."

Then all rose with a roar, and waved their glasses.

Bladys escaped through the doorway, into her room above the gate, and bolted the door.

"Luke Onion, make her come," called Nicodemus. "She don't show you nor us proper respect."

Onion, infuriated by the banter, galled by the words of Jarrock, stung by the slight put upon him by Bladys, leapt to his feet, rushed to the door, and, striking it with his feet and fists, bellowed:

"Come out instantly, I command you!"

All present became silent, holding their punch-glasses in hand, some of which were filled, others extended to be supplied, and looked towards the door expectantly.

No reply was vouchsafed to the command. The bolt was not withdrawn. Again the hangman struck at it, and with an oath called:

"Come forth, or I'll break it open." Still no reply, no movement.

The men at the table tittered, nudged each other, and twinkled their eyes at one another.

The head turnkey said:

"This is very like to that scene in the Scripture, where the King sent for Vashti, and she would not come."

"Ay," said Jarrock, "but when Vashti refused to come, he took another in her room. By Heaven! there is the rub. There be no Esther who will have him. He has been five years questing a Vashti!"

This sally produced a burst of laughter, and roused Luke's anger to madness. He became livid with rage, and, in the excitement, the stitches that closed his wound gave way, and blood trickled down the side of his face. He set his teeth, his eyes glared; he went to an outer chamber, and returned with a crowbar.

With this he smote at the bedroom door.

"Come out," he roared. "I will beat in the panels; I will drag you forth by the hair."

Then he belaboured the door with a fury that gathered at every blow. Splinters came off and flew about the room.

Mother Onion hastened to her son, and endeavoured to pacify him, by representations that the scene was not a seemly one to exhibit before his guests; that she whom he summoned was unworthy of his anger, and was best left to herself. But he would not hearken. His blood was boiling, his brain on fire. He flung himself with his full weight against the oak door; he drove the point of the bar in at the joint, that he might work the hinges out of their sockets in the solid stone into which they were soldered.

Then suddenly the alarm bell that hung above the gate rang out its summons fast and vehement.

Instantly every glass was set down on the table. Onion lowered the bar and fell back. A look of dismay spread over his face.

"She will rouse the town!"

"She will bring the mob on us again!"

"They will murder us all, this time!"

Then Nicodemus, in an agitated voice, said:

"Make her cease. Promise anything."

Luke leaned on his crowbar, panting for breath, his eyes flaring as with summer lightnings.

Then Nicodemus himself went to the door, and called:

"Mrs Onion!"

Still the bell continued to peal.

Jarrock laughed and said:

"She will not respond to that name."

"Then how shall I call her? By — we must stay the bell."

Thereupon Abraham Jarrock took his place against the door and shouted:

"Stewponey Bladys! Name your own terms and you shall go free."

At once the bell ceased, and in the lull that ensued was heard a hubbub of voices without.

"The people are gathering!" whispered Mother Onion.

"They will break in the door!" gasped Ap Rice.

Then Bladys said distinctly in reply:

"Let the head gaoler in the name of all swear to let me depart untouched, not to suffer a finger to be laid upon me."

"I swear!" answered the turnkey.

At once the bolt was withdrawn, the door was thrown open, and Bladys came forth, self-possessed and white as snow.

The men were standing at the table, some with their hands on it. Luke made an attempt to strike at her with the crowbar, but Abraham fell upon him, dashed him against the wall, and wrenched the weapon from his hands.

"You fool!" he said, "will you give the mob an excuse for tearing us to pieces?"

Then Nicodemus stood forward and said;

"Go your way; none shall molest you."

He stepped back to the table, took up his glass, raised it, and said:

"Here is to you! A brave wench! I honour you—but your place is not here. Drink to her, lads."

His command was silently obeyed.

"Now," said he, "Mother Onion, attend her to the door. My lads, let not that mad fellow touch her."

Mrs Onion grasped the shoulder of Bladys and thrust her before her through the doorway and down the stone steps, opened the door of the house, and with a push sent her into the street with such precipitation as would have thrown her to the pavement had she not been caught.

The street was filling. Windows were thrown open and heads appeared at them. Cries were audible—more people were hurrying to the gate in answer to the call of the bell.

"Stewponey Bla!" exclaimed a cheerful voice. Bladys found herself in the arms of Nancy Norris.