A single blade of light sliced through the bars of my cell and stabbed at the darkness within. Dust motes danced in the spectral beam, an occasional gust of putrid air disturbing the tranquil scene played out before me. In one dark corner the racked breathing of an old man, in the other the scrapings of a mouse, or rat, as it continued its foraging for the meanest of scraps.
At a distance I could hear the cheering and baying of a London mob, hell bent and savage for the joys of a good hanging. My chest heaved once more and the uncontrollable sobs that coursed my body and tore at my dry, raw throat returned once more without the tears I had already exhausted.
How could it ever come to this? My clothes were ripped, my hair torn out, it felt as though my filth-infested skin was bloodied and broken in a thousand places. The wounds on my ankles already pustules, maggots feeding off my flesh. A week ago I was alive, I was working and I was free. Now I could only hope for a release from the torment I was going through. The torment that I craved when I turned King’s Evidence. I did not want to die then, but now. But now
The roar of the screaming hordes, of which I had once been a part of, rose to a fevered pitch, near hysteria. I knew it well. The hangman was at his work, the trapdoors operational, the rope strong and the drop good. Another thunderous clamour as the swaying, coursing crowd, thousands forming one enormous and terrible living being, surged forward at the sight of today’s condemned. Today, I would hear the death knell for my friends and the end of my life as I knew it. The crowd would not be satisfied until those poor souls had dropped, and I could not be happy until I joined them. How long away would that be?
I imagined the scene in my mind's eye of the five helpless people making their way to their deaths. To dance on Newgate’s scaffold. Some went with resolve, pride almost. But I knew that Maddy would not be brave. She was innocent. And so was John.
I tried to rid myself of the image of the procession, but could not. There was the pious priest reading from his bible and the rich dignitaries who had been invited to enjoy the show. And there was Lord Roberts. I felt my jaw tighten at his name, and the look on that smug, self-righteous bastard of a face of his when he first brought the guards to arrest me. And I thought of the disapproval he voiced when he realised I would escape the noose.
Another roar went up; the first prisoner must have been climbing the steps. The people further back in the crowd had got their first glimpse of today’s entertainment. And they liked it. I hoped it wasn't Maddy. She would be as terrified of the crowd as she would the hangman. She never went to the hangings and she was appalled that John and I did. I smiled at the times we had spent together in the taverns or when we came to Newgate. We used to make jokes of the people about to die. It was not so funny now.
I made myself believe that with John beside her, Maddy would not be so frightened. I imagined John supporting her, reassuring her, telling her it would be all right.
The crowd began to quieten. All the prisoners would be on the stage by now. Jemmy Botting would be checking the nooses, revelling in his role and playing to the crowd. And then, there was silence. I pulled myself tighter into a ball, everywhere hurt, my irons scraped along the floor.
“Shut up. I’m listening,” whispered the old man. I ignored him and closed my eyes. A thousand thoughts picked their way through my mind and they all formed into Maddy’s beautiful face. The silence coursed through me and seemed to last an eternity. An emptiness, a surreal world where I could only see Maddy, and feel the very deepest despair.
Another roar and I knew then what I had done. Tears streamed from burning eyes. I had murdered my friends, the two dearest things I had possessed were swinging by their necks and I had put them there. They did not know it was me that took that bracelet. I never thought it would be missed. But Roberts was a miserly bastard. He knew it had gone next day. He had seen the three of us talking near the room I had taken it from. And he had accused us all of theft. What could I have done? I was so scared, I wasn’t thinking. I knew I would swing for the crime, but I just kept denying it and denying it. Maddy and John knew nothing, but the prosecutor thought they knew. That’s when he offered me King’s Evidence, and my life, if I lied.
“You’d get away with transportation,” he said. “Might only get seven years before you’d be free,” he said.
And I took it.
By God I took it. And my life will never be the same again. I told the court how John bragged about taking the trinket. How he had hidden it to sell on when all the fuss had died down. How he could get a bit of money for the two of them. How they could be married now. But it was me that had taken it!
I told the court everything I could think of to condemn them. All the while I just could not look at John or Maddy. I could hear her sobs and shouts of “Liar!” from him, but I kept looking at the judge.
I wept when it was over. I was saved and could not contain my relief. I didn’t think of my friends, I blocked them out and thought about anything else. About my mother who I would never see again, and of my sister that would be left to care for her. I thought of all the things I used to do and would not do again. And I thought about the injustice of it all; how I would be moved from this life to a place that I did not want to go to. Why should I be taken? It was only a bloody trinket! Life was not fair. I had worked so hard and got paid so little. Roberts could afford to buy another one. Why should I be removed from the people I loved because of a pointless piece of metal?
It was then that it truly hit me. The magnitude of what I had done. I had condemned those that I had loved and I would be alive in a new land. I would have done anything to go back, to have never picked up that trinket. But my friends would die and I would be sent to a new life, miles away and alone.
The noise had abated and the crowd will have gone away satisfied. The hanging was over, Jemmy Botting would cut them down and sell the rope. The bodies would not even get a proper Christian burial.
“Sounded like a good ‘un,” chuckled the old man, but I ignored him. I have never felt so calm as I did at that moment. It was finally over. Maddy and John would only be a part of memory and I was still alive. I was going to be transported, but I was not dead.
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