04 - 09

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 40

04 - 09

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  • زمان مطالعه 9 دقیقه
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9

WEDNESDAY ARRIVED with excruciating slowness. Only then did Tanna and I reach our final, mute conclusion, staring across at each other over dishes of cold mince and pickled smelts. We would go to the hanging; how could I fail to? I would never accept the death if I did not myself see it.

We sat in silence on the drive over, the sound of our breath filling the carriage as it swayed and rumbled under us. Tanna removed her gloves to clutch my hand in her damp grip.

We heard the crowd at Newgate long before we saw it. As we rounded the corner, the crowd seemed to rise out of the muck like some rabid hallucination. There were so many people we did not argue when the driver barked for us to climb down long before we’d actually reached the prison. My mind was afire, my limbs sluggish, and I trod silent through the rain-damp streets, Tanna studying me nervously. By my own rough count there were no fewer than four hundred souls churning through the mud.

I was of goodly height, and despite my thinness there was a power to my wide shoulders, so that I was able to shove open a clear path for us through the crowd. The people gathered here were rough, men who but for God’s grace might themselves be hanged; sailors; a few ex-slaves; but also women in tattered hats, their dresses ugly with torn stitching. The stench of onions and sour wine clung to the air. Even the children, the many children, darted among the gathered, slicing pockets and collecting a good day’s earnings.

In my seven months in London, I had never set eyes on Newgate Prison. Nothing had brought me to its gates. I saw now a hideous brick building, tall and looming, before which had been erected a large platform with a gallows. The platform was surrounded by a low wooden fence barely strong enough to fend back a dog. And it was behind this fence that the crowd surged, hissing and laughing, gazing up at the nooses swaying there as if already savouring the spectacle.

We pushed onwards. I felt a growing anxiety as I listened to the low roar of the crowd. I glanced back at Tanna, at her quiet, nervous face. I should not have brought her here, I thought. As we neared the scaffold, something—a strong nausea—cut through me. I understood that what I was nearing might be the final scene in the terrible drama that had ravaged these last five years of my life. Was it really to be? Was this truly how it would end? The newspaper had stated that two were to be hanged: Louis Hazzard, a Negro, for the crimes of theft and arson; and John Francis Willard, a Scotsman, for the crime of murder of a Freeman. And so what had happened to him, in these intervening months? Had he been unable in the end to swallow his vengeance and killed another man, believing him me? Or had it been a more random act, a striking out at a black man whose freedom seemed unnatural to him? I stood in the cool air, watching the great irony of it—his indictment for the crime of killing my double, and his sharing of this legislated death with yet another black man.

Vendors cried out their wares; men carried trays of hot chestnuts slung about their necks. A group of fiddlers stepped over the thin fence and began tuning up to play. We continued to push our way forward.

I could see the scaffold clearly now, a grey, rickety wooden structure, the steps half-buckled on the far side. Guards stood in a loose semicircle around the works, their weapons at the ready. The crowd was tense, but not angry. There was an air of holidaying to it all.

At last, on the stroke of noon, the two men were led out.

I strained to catch sight of them. The black man came first, and though he resembled no one I knew, I started at the sight of him, as if I were gazing upon a familiar. He was neither young nor old, his hair shorn and his face squinting. He wore no boots. He walked slowly, as though savouring the damp brick on the soles of his feet—or perhaps as though he feared collapsing. He appeared momentarily confused.

Peering at the second man, an anguish came over me. How was it we stood on opposing sides of this fence, as if it were the dividing line between death and life? I began to shiver; Tanna gripped my arm harder. I saw clearly the damaged eye behind the glinting spectacles, white and sightless. I saw his grey prison shirt immaculate as if just pressed, and I saw the blond head with its air of a scholar as he stared out over the crowd, seeming to seek someone. He looked terribly, impossibly tired.

When I’d caught sight of his name in the paper, I had been filled with relief. Now, seeing him standing so straight-backed there, as if trying to maintain a dignity long ago lost, revulsion washed over me, an astonishment at my own blood lust. I had not killed him all those months ago in Nova Scotia because I had not wanted to take a life. It had been a badge to me, a triumph of decency. Seeing him now, I understood how false was my self-congratulation, my high moral stance. I had been afraid, that is all. The true mercy would have been to kill him, to give him the death he had been thirsting after all these years. For that had been the true prize in all his years of hunting me: the gift of a death at my hands, a death befitting his ideals, a martyrdom.

I held my breath as the men were led to the scaffold. Without any theatrics a young hangman came forward and shuffled the prisoners into place, drew the nooses down from the beam and loosened them, then set bags over the prisoners’ heads. In the seconds before it was covered, I saw Willard’s face, fleetingly. He flinched in panic, his eyes white with terror.

A man of God stepped forward with a Bible held before him like an open hand. When he lifted his face, I saw a large purple birthmark under his chin. He said some words I did not hear, and the young guard nodded. The crowd had begun to hoot and jeer, as though they were a single animal, all teeth and vicious anticipation.

Dread filled me; I clutched Tanna’s face to my chest, so that she might not see. The preacher stepped back, and the hangman took his position. He drew hard on a pulley; the floor swung noiselessly away. The two men kicked and struggled, and then were still. The crowd had fallen terribly silent. From where I stood, I could hear the creak of the ropes. The hangman made his unhurried way down the scaffold, ducking underneath. He gripped first the legs of Hazzard, then Willard, and pulled with all his strength, holding them for two minutes each to be sure of their deaths.

The crowd erupted in cheering, laughter and singing. Then it turned away from the spectacle and upon itself: fist fights broke out, men yelled and scuffled. A guard was standing nearby, bored.

And so it was truly over, done.

I stood among the crowd, rocked on all sides. Tanna lifted her face to stare grimly at the lifeless legs swaying there, the trousers darkening with urine. Watching her fascination, I felt a mild irritation at her interest, though it was only natural. And then, just beyond her head, I caught a strong flicker of colour, and I glanced past her to see.

A figure stood half-obscured by the crowd, gazing up at the gallows. He was tall and slightly corpulent, with a long, equine face. He wore a lovingly tailored blue frock coat with a sunflower-yellow waistcoat underneath. In his hands, naked and unadorned, he held a black top hat, which he turned and turned by the brim.

My body drained of all blood, and I felt myself going cold. I stared as the man angled his head to restore his hat. Then he began to turn away.

I stepped forward into the crowd, yelling out, shoving past.

“Titch!” I cried.

I could hear dimly behind me Tanna calling my name, but I did not stop, clawing my way past sweat-laced men, their breath stinking of beer and foul meat. The bright-blue coat was swallowed cleanly by the sea of bodies, then became suddenly visible again. I pushed and shoved my way closer, repeating his name. Just when I believed him altogether lost, he turned, gazing past my head to the gallows beyond. And I saw then the general shape of his face—the bulbous nose, the cheeks rounded and bloated with drink. He was, I understood, another man entirely, a stranger unknown to me.

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