by BART MEEHAN
26 May 1868
other objected, of course.
“He is too young for this sort of thing,” she said.
I was about to point out that I was 8 years old, when Father grunted his disgust.
“You look after the girls, Martha. I will take care of the boy’s education.”
I saw a hint of anger in her eyes, but she said nothing, just nodded and left the room.
“Women have no understanding of the real world, Charles. They have been raised to enjoy the finer things,” Father explained. “But you must experience it all.”
“What you see today will not be easy and you will see it as few have. But there are things you must learn if you are going to make your way in this world.”
“I understand, sir,” I said, trying to sound convincing.
He smiled at me and for a moment I thought he might reach out and squeeze my shoulder in some embarrassing show of affection, but thankfully he resisted any temptation. Instead, he turned towards the door, collecting his coat from the rack as he did, and said:
“Now we must hurry or we’ll start our adventure by missing the train to London.”
Oh what a marvellous day it was.
We had lunch on the riverbank, then a rode the new underground railway, crossing the city without once seeing daylight. And when we did emerge from the tunnels, the city itself was beyond imagination.
Father told me that we had lived here when I was small child, but I had no memory of it. So today everything was seen through new eyes. The colours and smells, crowds pushing through the streets, coach men swearing as one horse bumped another and grocers yelling out doggerel from their market stalls.
Some of the older gentlemen we passed recognised my father from his days as the Bloodhound of the Yard (a moniker given to him by the newspapers after he solved a particularly grisly murder involving the removal of organs to be fried with onions and ale) and tipped their hats in respect. He smiled away the attention and I could not tell if he was flattered to be remembered. However, I knew he was not interested in reliving his past, for whenever I pressed him for details of the great cases my school chums talked about, he became sullen and hid behind the Times.
As we walked, he pointed out the great monuments and invested their stories with a familiarity that only someone who truly knew the city could provide. I found there was so much to learn that I could barely take it all in and finally I had to stop to catch my breath.
My stalling annoyed him, of course, (Father was not man who dawdled once the course had been set) so he offered a sharp rebuke, questioning whether Mother had been right about me being too young, This reinvigorated my spirit and once again we were off.
There was a crowd by the time we reached Newgate Prison (that was to be expected), and it was in full voice: Champagne Charlie is my name, Champagne Charlie is my name.
I had never heard the song and suspected that Father would consider it a frivolous thing, but I could not help smiling at the mention of my name.
We pushed into the crowded Square and when we could go no further, my father asked if I could see. I stood on tip toes but the extra height did little, so I shook my head. He seemed perplexed by the situation and lost for a solution, when a man in front of us – a common fellow who had overheard our conversation - offered me a box to stand on.
“Thought I might need it myself, sir”, he said. “But I can see fine. It’d be a pity for the boy to miss out.”
Father thanked him and I climbed up, giving myself an extra foot and a clear view of the gallows.
The hangman was already there, a big chap with a full beard. He stood to attention, looking solemn until someone called out for him to do a good job. Then he smiled and waved.
It‘s all rather jolly, I thought, but when they brought the condemned man out, shackled and struggling between guards, the good nature in the crowd disappeared and they began jeering.
I was too young to understand it all, so Father explained that the man had slaughtered three women to collect their hearts.
“He told the court that, at night, he could hear them beating in the jars under his bed and the sound was the only thing that silenced the voices marshalling his thoughts,” he said. “It’s true that they were women of easy virtue, Charles. Still, they did not deserve to die at the hands of a monster.”
Then he asked if I felt sorry for the fellow.
“No, sir.” I said firmly and for a moment, I thought I saw a smile forming before he turned his face away.
I stared at the man, who now stood shaking under the noose, and offered my opinion that he looked no different from any other common fellow you might meet in the street. Father nodded.
“How else would evil be able to hide in the world?” he said.
The process of execution was faster than I imagined. A reading of the sentence and some words from a priest, before the hood was placed over the condemned man’s head. There was a hushed moment of anticipation, in which the only sound was the muffled begging of a monster who realised the time of reckoning had come, then the executioner did his duty.
I jumped when the trap door snapped open and hoped that Father had not noticed.
Up on the gallows, the wretch jerked in his noose and the crowd cheered the dance. Father told me that the rope was too short to break his neck, so he would slowly strangle. Then, after a full minute, the hangman decided to move things along by climbing on his victim’s shoulders and using his weight to finish the job. A bit of showmanship my father said was unseemly, but something that entertained the crowd and they began to sing again.
As the spectacle reached its inevitable end, the hood came off the doomed man’s head and I saw his face, red as a berry, and his tongue lolling on his lips. It was in that moment, I am sure, he looked directly at me and as the last flicker of life disappeared down the long corridors in his eyes. I felt myself drawn in, pulled by some force that wanted company in the darkness.
There, I was overwhelmed by the horror of a thousand rancid things pecking at my soul, filling themselves on its innocence. My own heart matched the panicked beat of the dying man, and there was a tightness in my chest that squeezed the air from my lungs. I was sure that I was about to fall into a pit and be forgotten, when the voices of the crowd singing my name, reached in and led me out of that dark place.
Returned to the world of light, I straightened my back, trying to hide my fears in a schoolboy’s stance, and fixed my gaze on the gallows. As I did, a mist began rising out of the dead man. It twisted into a column, then spread from the top, hovering above the crowd like a scavenger over carrion, before a breeze pushed it into the streets of the city. I blinked away the image and found myself wondering if this was no more than the imaginings of a child, but as I looked at my father, I saw his eyes were pressed shut and his face was pale.
“Father?” The question in my tone brought him back.
He stared at me for a moment, but offered no explanations. Instead he said it was time we left, then turned and marched quickly out of the Square.
“You will see it as few others have,” he had told me, and as I followed him, my young mind tried to find a purpose in the lesson. The pathway into life that it was mapping.
How else would evil hide in the world? I repeated his rhetorical question to myself, then added one of my own: And who will find it?
On the train home we sat in silence until we arrived at our station, when Father told me not to discuss the day with my mother and sisters.
“It is not a subject for them,” he said, his voice tired. “But you must never forget.”
I nodded my understanding and we made our way through the village in fading light. Shadows crowded the streets and I started shaking as I thought about all the things that hid in the dark.
When Father squeezed my shoulder, I did not object, and joined like that, we walked on.
Note: This story is fiction. However, the last public hanging in England did occur on 26 May 1868 at Newgate Prison, and many in the crowd (men, women and children), had ridden on the newly opened Underground Railway to attend the execution.
Bart Meehan lives in Canberra Australia and has published several stories over the years. Bart has also written a short radio play about World War 1 that was broadcast on Australian radio and is now available for free download here. A second play on the London Blitz during World War 2, will be broadcast in the coming months. Bart's micro 40 Years and Counting appears in the April 2013 issue of HelloHorror.
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