Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 77

The time wore on. The noises in the streets became less frequent by degrees, until silence was scarcely broken save by the bells in church towers, marking the progress — softer and more stealthy while the city slumbered — of that Great Watcher with the hoary head, who never sleeps or rests. In the brief interval of darkness and repose which feverish towns enjoy, all busy sounds were hushed; and those who awoke from dreams lay listening in their beds, and longed for dawn, and wished the dead of the night were past.

Into the street outside the jail’s main wall, workmen came straggling at this solemn hour, in groups of two or three, and meeting in the centre, cast their tools upon the ground and spoke in whispers. Others soon issued from the jail itself, bearing on their shoulders planks and beams: these materials being all brought forth, the rest bestirred themselves, and the dull sound of hammers began to echo through the stillness.

Here and there among this knot of labourers, one, with a lantern or a smoky link, stood by to light his fellows at their work; and by its doubtful aid, some might be dimly seen taking up the pavement of the road, while others held great upright posts, or fixed them in the holes thus made for their reception. Some dragged slowly on, towards the rest, an empty cart, which they brought rumbling from the prison-yard; while others erected strong barriers across the street. All were busily engaged. Their dusky figures moving to and fro, at that unusual hour, so active and so silent, might have been taken for those of shadowy creatures toiling at midnight on some ghostly unsubstantial work, which, like themselves, would vanish with the first gleam of day, and leave but morning mist and vapour.

While it was yet dark, a few lookers-on collected, who had plainly come there for the purpose and intended to remain: even those who had to pass the spot on their way to some other place, lingered, and lingered yet, as though the attraction of that were irresistible. Meanwhile the noise of saw and mallet went on briskly, mingled with the clattering of boards on the stone pavement of the road, and sometimes with the workmen’s voices as they called to one another. Whenever the chimes of the neighbouring church were heard — and that was every quarter of an hour — a strange sensation, instantaneous and indescribable, but perfectly obvious, seemed to pervade them all.

Gradually, a faint brightness appeared in the east, and the air, which had been very warm all through the night, felt cool and chilly. Though there was no daylight yet, the darkness was diminished, and the stars looked pale. The prison, which had been a mere black mass with little shape or form, put on its usual aspect; and ever and anon a solitary watchman could be seen upon its roof, stopping to look down upon the preparations in the street. This man, from forming, as it were, a part of the jail, and knowing or being supposed to know all that was passing within, became an object of as much interest, and was as eagerly looked for, and as awfully pointed out, as if he had been a spirit.

By and by, the feeble light grew stronger, and the houses with their signboards and inscriptions, stood plainly out, in the dull grey morning. Heavy stage waggons crawled from the inn-yard opposite; and travellers peeped out; and as they rolled sluggishly away, cast many a backward look towards the jail. And now, the sun’s first beams came glancing into the street; and the night’s work, which, in its various stages and in the varied fancies of the lookers-on had taken a hundred shapes, wore its own proper form — a scaffold, and a gibbet.

As the warmth of the cheerful day began to shed itself upon the scanty crowd, the murmur of tongues was heard, shutters were thrown open, and blinds drawn up, and those who had slept in rooms over against the prison, where places to see the execution were let at high prices, rose hastily from their beds. In some of the houses, people were busy taking out the window-sashes for the better accommodation of spectators; in others, the spectators were already seated, and beguiling the time with cards, or drink, or jokes among themselves. Some had purchased seats upon the house-tops, and were already crawling to their stations from parapet and garret-window. Some were yet bargaining for good places, and stood in them in a state of indecision: gazing at the slowly-swelling crowd, and at the workmen as they rested listlessly against the scaffold — affecting to listen with indifference to the proprietor’s eulogy of the commanding view his house afforded, and the surpassing cheapness of his terms.

A fairer morning never shone. From the roofs and upper stories of these buildings, the spires of city churches and the great cathedral dome were visible, rising up beyond the prison, into the blue sky, and clad in the colour of light summer clouds, and showing in the clear atmosphere their every scrap of tracery and fretwork, and every niche and loophole. All was brightness and promise, excepting in the street below, into which (for it yet lay in shadow) the eye looked down as into a dark trench, where, in the midst of so much life, and hope, and renewal of existence, stood the terrible instrument of death. It seemed as if the very sun forbore to look upon it.

But it was better, grim and sombre in the shade, than when, the day being more advanced, it stood confessed in the full glare and glory of the sun, with its black paint blistering, and its nooses dangling in the light like loathsome garlands. It was better in the solitude and gloom of midnight with a few forms clustering about it, than in the freshness and the stir of morning: the centre of an eager crowd. It was better haunting the street like a spectre, when men were in their beds, and influencing perchance the city’s dreams, than braving the broad day, and thrusting its obscene presence upon their waking senses.

Five o’clock had struck — six — seven — and eight. Along the two main streets at either end of the cross-way, a living stream had now set in, rolling towards the marts of gain and business. Carts, coaches, waggons, trucks, and barrows, forced a passage through the outskirts of the throng, and clattered onward in the same direction. Some of these which were public conveyances and had come from a short distance in the country, stopped; and the driver pointed to the gibbet with his whip, though he might have spared himself the pains, for the heads of all the passengers were turned that way without his help, and the coach-windows were stuck full of staring eyes. In some of the carts and waggons, women might be seen, glancing fearfully at the same unsightly thing; and even little children were held up above the people’s heads to see what kind of a toy a gallows was, and learn how men were hanged.

Two rioters were to die before the prison, who had been concerned in the attack upon it; and one directly afterwards in Bloomsbury Square. At nine o’clock, a strong body of military marched into the street, and formed and lined a narrow passage into Holborn, which had been indifferently kept all night by constables. Through this, another cart was brought (the one already mentioned had been employed in the construction of the scaffold), and wheeled up to the prison-gate. These preparations made, the soldiers stood at ease; the officers lounged to and fro, in the alley they had made, or talked together at the scaffold’s foot; and the concourse, which had been rapidly augmenting for some hours, and still received additions every minute, waited with an impatience which increased with every chime of St Sepulchre’s clock, for twelve at noon.

Up to this time they had been very quiet, comparatively silent, save when the arrival of some new party at a window, hitherto unoccupied, gave them something new to look at or to talk of. But, as the hour approached, a buzz and hum arose, which, deepening every moment, soon swelled into a roar, and seemed to fill the air. No words or even voices could be distinguished in this clamour, nor did they speak much to each other; though such as were better informed upon the topic than the rest, would tell their neighbours, perhaps, that they might know the hangman when he came out, by his being the shorter one: and that the man who was to suffer with him was named Hugh: and that it was Barnaby Rudge who would be hanged in Bloomsbury Square.

The hum grew, as the time drew near, so loud, that those who were at the windows could not hear the church-clock strike, though it was close at hand. Nor had they any need to hear it, either, for they could see it in the people’s faces. So surely as another quarter chimed, there was a movement in the crowd — as if something had passed over it — as if the light upon them had been changed — in which the fact was readable as on a brazen dial, figured by a giant’s hand.

Three quarters past eleven! The murmur now was deafening, yet every man seemed mute. Look where you would among the crowd, you saw strained eyes and lips compressed; it would have been difficult for the most vigilant observer to point this way or that, and say that yonder man had cried out. It were as easy to detect the motion of lips in a sea-shell.

Three quarters past eleven! Many spectators who had retired from the windows, came back refreshed, as though their watch had just begun. Those who had fallen asleep, roused themselves; and every person in the crowd made one last effort to better his position — which caused a press against the sturdy barriers that made them bend and yield like twigs. The officers, who until now had kept together, fell into their several positions, and gave the words of command. Swords were drawn, muskets shouldered, and the bright steel winding its way among the crowd, gleamed and glittered in the sun like a river. Along this shining path, two men came hurrying on, leading a horse, which was speedily harnessed to the cart at the prison-door. Then, a profound silence replaced the tumult that had so long been gathering, and a breathless pause ensued. Every window was now choked up with heads; the house-tops teemed with people — clinging to chimneys, peering over gable-ends, and holding on where the sudden loosening of any brick or stone would dash them down into the street. The church tower, the church roof, the church yard, the prison leads, the very water-spouts and lampposts — every inch of room — swarmed with human life.

At the first stroke of twelve the prison-bell began to toll. Then the roar — mingled now with cries of ‘Hats off!’ and ‘Poor fellows!’ and, from some specks in the great concourse, with a shriek or groan — burst forth again. It was terrible to see — if any one in that distraction of excitement could have seen — the world of eager eyes, all strained upon the scaffold and the beam.

The hollow murmuring was heard within the jail as plainly as without. The three were brought forth into the yard, together, as it resounded through the air. They knew its import well.

‘D’ye hear?’ cried Hugh, undaunted by the sound. ‘They expect us! I heard them gathering when I woke in the night, and turned over on t’other side and fell asleep again. We shall see how they welcome the hangman, now that it comes home to him. Ha, ha, ha!’

The Ordinary coming up at this moment, reproved him for his indecent mirth, and advised him to alter his demeanour.

‘And why, master?’ said Hugh. ‘Can I do better than bear it easily? YOU bear it easily enough. Oh! never tell me,’ he cried, as the other would have spoken, ‘for all your sad look and your solemn air, you think little enough of it! They say you’re the best maker of lobster salads in London. Ha, ha! I’ve heard that, you see, before now. Is it a good one, this morning — is your hand in? How does the breakfast look? I hope there’s enough, and to spare, for all this hungry company that’ll sit down to it, when the sight’s over.’

‘I fear,’ observed the clergyman, shaking his head, ‘that you are incorrigible.’

‘You’re right. I am,’ rejoined Hugh sternly. ‘Be no hypocrite, master! You make a merry-making of this, every month; let me be merry, too. If you want a frightened fellow there’s one that’ll suit you. Try your hand upon him.’

He pointed, as he spoke, to Dennis, who, with his legs trailing on the ground, was held between two men; and who trembled so, that all his joints and limbs seemed racked by spasms. Turning from this wretched spectacle, he called to Barnaby, who stood apart.

‘What cheer, Barnaby? Don’t be downcast, lad. Leave that to HIM.’

‘Bless you,’ cried Barnaby, stepping lightly towards him, ‘I’m not frightened, Hugh. I’m quite happy. I wouldn’t desire to live now, if they’d let me. Look at me! Am I afraid to die? Will they see ME tremble?’

Hugh gazed for a moment at his face, on which there was a strange, unearthly smile; and at his eye, which sparkled brightly; and interposing between him and the Ordinary, gruffly whispered to the latter:

‘I wouldn’t say much to him, master, if I was you. He may spoil your appetite for breakfast, though you ARE used to it.’

He was the only one of the three who had washed or trimmed himself that morning. Neither of the others had done so, since their doom was pronounced. He still wore the broken peacock’s feathers in his hat; and all his usual scraps of finery were carefully disposed about his person. His kindling eye, his firm step, his proud and resolute bearing, might have graced some lofty act of heroism; some voluntary sacrifice, born of a noble cause and pure enthusiasm; rather than that felon’s death.

But all these things increased his guilt. They were mere assumptions. The law had declared it so, and so it must be. The good minister had been greatly shocked, not a quarter of an hour before, at his parting with Grip. For one in his condition, to fondle a bird! — The yard was filled with people; bluff civic functionaries, officers of justice, soldiers, the curious in such matters, and guests who had been bidden as to a wedding. Hugh looked about him, nodded gloomily to some person in authority, who indicated with his hand in what direction he was to proceed; and clapping Barnaby on the shoulder, passed out with the gait of a lion.

They entered a large room, so near to the scaffold that the voices of those who stood about it, could be plainly heard: some beseeching the javelin-men to take them out of the crowd: others crying to those behind, to stand back, for they were pressed to death, and suffocating for want of air.

In the middle of this chamber, two smiths, with hammers, stood beside an anvil. Hugh walked straight up to them, and set his foot upon it with a sound as though it had been struck by a heavy weapon. Then, with folded arms, he stood to have his irons knocked off: scowling haughtily round, as those who were present eyed him narrowly and whispered to each other.

It took so much time to drag Dennis in, that this ceremony was over with Hugh, and nearly over with Barnaby, before he appeared. He no sooner came into the place he knew so well, however, and among faces with which he was so familiar, than he recovered strength and sense enough to clasp his hands and make a last appeal.

‘Gentlemen, good gentlemen,’ cried the abject creature, grovelling down upon his knees, and actually prostrating himself upon the stone floor: ‘Governor, dear governor — honourable sheriffs — worthy gentlemen — have mercy upon a wretched man that has served His Majesty, and the Law, and Parliament, for so many years, and don’t — don’t let me die — because of a mistake.’

‘Dennis,’ said the governor of the jail, ‘you know what the course is, and that the order came with the rest. You know that we could do nothing, even if we would.’

‘All I ask, sir — all I want and beg, is time, to make it sure,’ cried the trembling wretch, looking wildly round for sympathy. ‘The King and Government can’t know it’s me; I’m sure they can’t know it’s me; or they never would bring me to this dreadful slaughterhouse. They know my name, but they don’t know it’s the same man. Stop my execution — for charity’s sake stop my execution, gentlemen — till they can be told that I’ve been hangman here, nigh thirty year. Will no one go and tell them?’ he implored, clenching his hands and glaring round, and round, and round again —‘will no charitable person go and tell them!’

‘Mr Akerman,’ said a gentleman who stood by, after a moment’s pause, ‘since it may possibly produce in this unhappy man a better frame of mind, even at this last minute, let me assure him that he was well known to have been the hangman, when his sentence was considered.’

‘— But perhaps they think on that account that the punishment’s not so great,’ cried the criminal, shuffling towards this speaker on his knees, and holding up his folded hands; ‘whereas it’s worse, it’s worse a hundred times, to me than any man. Let them know that, sir. Let them know that. They’ve made it worse to me by giving me so much to do. Stop my execution till they know that!’

The governor beckoned with his hand, and the two men, who had supported him before, approached. He uttered a piercing cry:

‘Wait! Wait. Only a moment — only one moment more! Give me a last chance of reprieve. One of us three is to go to Bloomsbury Square. Let me be the one. It may come in that time; it’s sure to come. In the Lord’s name let me be sent to Bloomsbury Square. Don’t hang me here. It’s murder.’

They took him to the anvil: but even then he could he heard above the clinking of the smiths’ hammers, and the hoarse raging of the crowd, crying that he knew of Hugh’s birth — that his father was living, and was a gentleman of influence and rank — that he had family secrets in his possession — that he could tell nothing unless they gave him time, but must die with them on his mind; and he continued to rave in this sort until his voice failed him, and he sank down a mere heap of clothes between the two attendants.

It was at this moment that the clock struck the first stroke of twelve, and the bell began to toll. The various officers, with the two sheriffs at their head, moved towards the door. All was ready when the last chime came upon the ear.

They told Hugh this, and asked if he had anything to say.

‘To say!’ he cried. ‘Not I. I’m ready. — Yes,’ he added, as his eye fell upon Barnaby, ‘I have a word to say, too. Come hither, lad.’

There was, for the moment, something kind, and even tender, struggling in his fierce aspect, as he wrung his poor companion by the hand.

‘I’ll say this,’ he cried, looking firmly round, ‘that if I had ten lives to lose, and the loss of each would give me ten times the agony of the hardest death, I’d lay them all down — ay, I would, though you gentlemen may not believe it — to save this one. This one,’ he added, wringing his hand again, ‘that will be lost through me.’

‘Not through you,’ said the idiot, mildly. ‘Don’t say that. You were not to blame. You have always been very good to me. — Hugh, we shall know what makes the stars shine, NOW!’

‘I took him from her in a reckless mood, and didn’t think what harm would come of it,’ said Hugh, laying his hand upon his head, and speaking in a lower voice. ‘I ask her pardon; and his. — Look here,’ he added roughly, in his former tone. ‘You see this lad?’

They murmured ‘Yes,’ and seemed to wonder why he asked.

‘That gentleman yonder —’ pointing to the clergyman —‘has often in the last few days spoken to me of faith, and strong belief. You see what I am — more brute than man, as I have been often told — but I had faith enough to believe, and did believe as strongly as any of you gentlemen can believe anything, that this one life would be spared. See what he is! — Look at him!’

Barnaby had moved towards the door, and stood beckoning him to follow.

‘If this was not faith, and strong belief!’ cried Hugh, raising his right arm aloft, and looking upward like a savage prophet whom the near approach of Death had filled with inspiration, ‘where are they! What else should teach me — me, born as I was born, and reared as I have been reared — to hope for any mercy in this hardened, cruel, unrelenting place! Upon these human shambles, I, who never raised this hand in prayer till now, call down the wrath of God! On that black tree, of which I am the ripened fruit, I do invoke the curse of all its victims, past, and present, and to come. On the head of that man, who, in his conscience, owns me for his son, I leave the wish that he may never sicken on his bed of down, but die a violent death as I do now, and have the night-wind for his only mourner. To this I say, Amen, amen!’

His arm fell downward by his side; he turned; and moved towards them with a steady step, the man he had been before.

‘There is nothing more?’ said the governor.

Hugh motioned Barnaby not to come near him (though without looking in the direction where he stood) and answered, ‘There is nothing more.’

‘Move forward!’

‘— Unless,’ said Hugh, glancing hurriedly back — ‘unless any person here has a fancy for a dog; and not then, unless he means to use him well. There’s one, belongs to me, at the house I came from, and it wouldn’t be easy to find a better. He’ll whine at first, but he’ll soon get over that. — You wonder that I think about a dog just now, he added, with a kind of laugh. ‘If any man deserved it of me half as well, I’d think of HIM.’

He spoke no more, but moved onward in his place, with a careless air, though listening at the same time to the Service for the Dead, with something between sullen attention, and quickened curiosity. As soon as he had passed the door, his miserable associate was carried out; and the crowd beheld the rest.

Barnaby would have mounted the steps at the same time — indeed he would have gone before them, but in both attempts he was restrained, as he was to undergo the sentence elsewhere. In a few minutes the sheriffs reappeared, the same procession was again formed, and they passed through various rooms and passages to another door — that at which the cart was waiting. He held down his head to avoid seeing what he knew his eyes must otherwise encounter, and took his seat sorrowfully — and yet with something of a childish pride and pleasure — in the vehicle. The officers fell into their places at the sides, in front and in the rear; the sheriffs’ carriages rolled on; a guard of soldiers surrounded the whole; and they moved slowly forward through the throng and pressure toward Lord Mansfield’s ruined house.

It was a sad sight — all the show, and strength, and glitter, assembled round one helpless creature — and sadder yet to note, as he rode along, how his wandering thoughts found strange encouragement in the crowded windows and the concourse in the streets; and how, even then, he felt the influence of the bright sky, and looked up, smiling, into its deep unfathomable blue. But there had been many such sights since the riots were over — some so moving in their nature, and so repulsive too, that they were far more calculated to awaken pity for the sufferers, than respect for that law whose strong arm seemed in more than one case to be as wantonly stretched forth now that all was safe, as it had been basely paralysed in time of danger.

Two cripples — both mere boys — one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square. As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied. Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town. Four wretched women, too, were put to death. In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them. It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

One young man was hanged in Bishopsgate Street, whose aged grey-headed father waited for him at the gallows, kissed him at its foot when he arrived, and sat there, on the ground, till they took him down. They would have given him the body of his child; but he had no hearse, no coffin, nothing to remove it in, being too poor — and walked meekly away beside the cart that took it back to prison, trying, as he went, to touch its lifeless hand.

But the crowd had forgotten these matters, or cared little about them if they lived in their memory: and while one great multitude fought and hustled to get near the gibbet before Newgate, for a parting look, another followed in the train of poor lost Barnaby, to swell the throng that waited for him on the spot.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30