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The Bride of Newgate
By John Dickson Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1958 Clarice M. Carr
All rights reserved.
Introduces the Hangman
The hanging of Dick Darwent, outside the debtors' door of Newgate Prison, was to take place on the following morning.
Not until dawn would anybody hear an ominous sound, not even the tolling of the great bell at St. Sepulchre's. At dawn the spectators would hear the dragging clatter of hoofs on cobbles, the bump of wheels as horses drew out the scaffold from the Main Gate. It was a big and heavy scaffold, this one: a dozen feet high, and so broad that ten couples could have danced on its platform.
Its sides, boarded up like a box from platform to jolting wheels, were chastely painted black. Under the direction of John Langley, the hangman, it would be set up outside debtors' door.
At the moment, on that summer night before the hanging of Dick Darwent, it was not much past ten-thirty. But a crowd was already beginning to gather in the narrow street outside.
"Damme," said one hoarse-voiced turnkey, who was on duty in the lodge above the Main Gate, "damme, but this'll be a proper 'un!"
The turnkey was leaning out the window, craning his neck to look left and downward at the gloom of the street called Old Bailey.
A second turnkey, who had held his job for less than a month but whose red longcoat was almost as soiled as his companion's, hurried across to the window. The light of a single candle, burning on a table in the whitewashed room, for a moment showed only the backs of two dirty red long-coats craning outside.
"There won't be no riot!" protested the second turnkey, his voice high as though with defiance.
"They likes Dick. They're friendly to Dick."
The first turnkey, called Blazes because of his nose, leaned down and patted the rough-stone front of Old Newgate as though he loved it. His hoarse-voiced chuckle floated from outside.
"And so they was friendly to Holloway and Haggerty," he said, "when Brunskill turned 'em off in '07."
"Twenty-eight people, as come to see the execution, a-crushed to death in front of the scaffold. Not countin' the ones as wos 'urt, either. And that's not a word of a lie."
The second turnkey, tall and lean Jamy, drew his head back from the window. He knew it was not a lie.
"And 'twasn't a riot," argued Blazes. "Leastways, not wot you'd think of as a riot. Lord, it begins afore the coffin meat comes out of debtors' door, and they all gives the 'Ats Off! shout. It begins afore you knows it."
"But w'y does it?" insisted Jamy.
Blazes considered this, still patting the rough-stone front of Newgate.
"They're most of 'em drunk, for one thing." He stated a simple, natural fact. "About daylight they begins a-whoopin' and shoutin' and singing. Maybe a dog nips somebody's ankles. Maybe a 'ooman's stifling to death, or thinks she is. And then—"
Outside the window Blazes' red arms described a whirl. His voice, which had been almost serious, became again a hoarse chuckle.
"But the rarest games, though the crowd don't like it, is when the hangman's drunk too."
"No, and I never liked it meself!" Jamy cried suddenly.
Blazes slowly turned round. From the window emerged a large face with little blue veins trailing from the nose.
"W'y, bless your innercence," he began, in a kind of passion, "I've seen old Brunskill—afore Langley come in—so full-up o' brandy-and-water he tried to put the halter round the parson's neck 'stead of the coffin meat's! And that's no word of a lie either."
Abruptly, on the verge of another outburst. Blazes stopped.
Both men were uneasy. Both knew it. But neither would refer to what lay uppermost, like a fear clot, in his mind. And this fear clot had nothing to do with the execution tomorrow morning.
A hanging, to them as to others, was a familiar and almost a friendly spectacle. It was far more edifying than Punch and Judy. Some other disquiet, always there but seldom mentioned except with a jeer, oppressed their hearts as it oppressed all London. It could be felt in the air, and breathed like the smoke from the roofs opposite, on this night of Thursday, June twenty-first, 1815.
A bell on the wall jumped and danced and clattered.
"That's the wicket," growled Blazes. "Inside, too."
"Late visitor a-going out?" asked Jamy, who was hurriedly lighting a lantern at the candle.
"Werry late," said Blazes, with a significant look. "If you know what's o'clock, my lad, you'll get somethin' handsome outen him for your trouble."
Jamy, his keys rattling, hastened down the corkscrew stair.
The late visitor, who stood by the wicket gate in the big Main Gate, seemed mostly in shadow even when Jamy held up the oblong lantern with its grimy glass sides.
The visitor's nose twitched, perhaps his stomach twitched as well, at the smell of Newgate. From the Felons' Side you could faintly hear the noise of a carousal; wine or spirits might be obtained at any hour here.
"Late, sir," growled Jamy, in a voice imitating Blazes.
"Precisely a quarter to eleven," replied the visitor, in a dry and even voice.
He was a little, spare, unemotional man, in a coat with several capes; but he wore the black knee breeches and buckles of the last century. An old-fashioned 'un, thought Jamy, a shrewd 'un, as he watched the eyes behind the small gold-rimmed spectacles.
But the gentleman, whose gray hair was clubbed behind the neck, put a shilling into Jamy's hand as the later unlocked the wicket gate.
"Begging your pardon, sir," Jamy blurted out. 'Is there any news?"
Mr. Elias Crockit, lawyer, of Lincoln's Inn Fields, knew what Jamy meant.
"None, I fear," he replied. "Only rumor."
As the gate closed behind him, Mr. Crockit stood for a moment in the street under a fine if smoke-misted night of stars. He glanced at the house across the way. It was dark. But at dawn the windows would be lighted, and the champagne breakfast set out for that willful beauty, Miss Caroline Ross, and her guests.
It was the fashion of the gentry; no one minded. After breakfast, showing tipsy faces at the windows, they would watch the victim kick his heels on a rope with amusement or tears, according to their mood.
And Mr. Crockit must see Miss Caroline Ross now. Most desperately now!
A little way down Old Bailey, a hackney coach waited. In a low voice the little lawyer gave the address of Miss Caroline Ross, in St. James's Square.
Inside the gloom of the musty-smelling coach, as it jolted down and turned right into Fleet Street, Mr. Crockit took his hat from under his cloak and placed it on the seat beside him. He leaned back, pushing his spectacles up on his forehead and closing his eyes.
Mr. Elias Crockit was frightened. And he confessed it to himself.
It was not that he cared a groat for Richard Darwent, a condemned murderer. Murderers should be dusted away as snuff is dusted off the fingers. But what Miss Caroline Ross proposed was so shocking, so much a-bristle with possibilities for scandal, that Mr. Crockit feared for his own reputation.
And on his mind, he confessed, rested the oppressiveness which had troubled even that poor brute of a turnkey.
To Mr. Crockit, not as a rule an imaginative man, this oppressiveness seemed like a huge, slow drumbeat: distant, yet approaching until all the drums should strike up.
"News!" he murmured aloud. "News!"
But he did not open his eyes until the cab drew near Pall Mall. With the Strand left behind him, Mr. Crockit felt he could breathe cool bloom and grass again. Much as Mr. Crockit (like others) might feel apprehensive in the presence of the gentry, he was at least permitted to approach.
Pall Mall lay deserted. The feeble street lamps burning coal gas, installed here seven years ago and now common to London, lighted up only dun-colored houses and lines of hitching posts. Mr. Crockit's coach turned into St. James's Square, and stopped before number thirty-eight. Having paid his fare, the elderly lawyer mounted the stone steps to the narrow redbrick house. He had just rapped at the bronze knocker, when ...
"Come, now!" protested the startled Mr. Crockit, after which he wished he had not spoken.
A covered carriage, with horses nearly spent, smashed at full gallop into St. James's Square, and drew up with a clatter before the door of number eighteen.
Number eighteen was the home of Lord Castlereagh, the War Minister.
Mr. Crockit saw that brief scene at right angles, and some distance away, by the gleam of a gas lamp. He saw a flash of red coat and two gold epaulettes as a young officer jumped out of the carriage, raced up the steps of number eighteen, and plied the knocker.
Now Mr. Crockit did not know that the young officer was Major the Hon. Henry Percy, aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington. But he saw, protruding from a carriage window, what looked like the standards of two captured French eagles. And some emotion squeezed at his withered old heart, such as he had not known for years.
"Yes, sir?" inquired a man's voice, as the door of number thirty-eight opened to Mr. Crockit's knock.
And Mr. Crockit was, first and last, a man of business. Whatever he may have felt was instantly shut up, with a snap, in one of the small innumerable drawers of his mind.
"Miss Caroline Ross?"
He raised his eyebrows superciliously at the tall footman, chosen as usual for wide shoulders and fine calves, who wore Miss Ross's livery and a powdered wig.
"Yes, sir. If you will please follow me?"
The footman led him to the drawing room, up a padded staircase in a foyer softly lighted by candles. Coal gas was too dangerous for domestic lighting; a careless or drunken servant might blow up the house. Mr. Crockit approved such moderation. To him it remained an irritant that young dandies should wear grotesque tall hats, and (to him) the new fashion of trousers.
Another disturbing thought entered Mr. Crockit's mind.
Miss Caroline Ross was determined on a mad, dangerous enterprise. What if bravado prompted her to wear one of the lewd dresses invented by Lady Caroline Lamb?—another Caroline! This dress consisted of nothing whatever except a gown of transparent muslin, dampened with water so that it should adhere to the body.
It was unlikely, of course. Despite her beauty, Miss Ross was widely known for being (plague take these vulgar expressions) as cold as a fish. But she was willful and fiercely stubborn. Mr. Crockit more than suspected she cared not a straw for her reputation.
Nevertheless, after one glance into the drawing room as the footman announced him, he was reassured.
"Good evening, Mr. Crockit," said his hostess's voice. Caroline Ross was a few months short of her twenty-fifth birthday.
"Your most obedient servant, madam," replied Mr. Crockit, bowing low and meaning every word he said.
Both of them waited until the door had closed.
It was a bijou room, an intimate one too, decorated in the so-called Roman mode which permitted much green-and-white striping in the upholstery and many austere classical curves in the furniture. Four candles, each one inside a glass container and set in pairs, lighted the room from either side of the white-marble mantelpiece. Two tall windows, facing out over St. James's Square, were closely muffled with heavy dark-green curtains bordered in gold.
"Do you bring me good news, Mr. Crockit?"
"At least, madam, I bring you the news you desire."
The faint flush of triumph sprang into her face as he said that.
"Is there the faintest chance—no, the tiniest remote possibility!—that he may not die tomorrow morning?"
"There is none."
"Pray sit down, Mr. Crockit. Do sit down!"
She was being kindly to him now, spreading condescension; and Mr. Crockit, so humble in the presence of the great, keenly appreciated the honor.
Caroline Ross, also after the fashion, wore a white satin gown cut very high at the waist and very low at the corsage; her arms bare, the gown ankle-length. Color touched it only with a scarlet sash, and a single ruby at her breast. Her rich light-brown hair was worn in bands across the forehead, and, at the sides, in short ear-length ringlets. Her eyes were dark blue, with black lashes.
And yet Caroline, so feminine of face and especially of body, seemed to have about her no hint of softness. No animation, no tinge of color except that of the excitement of anger, ever touched her cheeks or her eyes.
And so she sat there, at one end of a low backless sofa, one bare elbow on the curved side of the sofa, her hand supporting her cheek under the ringlets as she inclined her head, with the candlelight falling softly over her.
Her blue eyes watched Mr. Crockit without expression.
"I am told," she said, "that this wretch what's-his-name has no tiniest chance of escape. What assurance do you give me?"
The little lawyer looked grim."
"You wished, I believe, that the hanging should be—expedited?"
"Yes, yes, yes!"
"Very well. I therefore made interest with a gentleman whom we shall merely call Sir B."
"Do you mean Sir Benjamin Bloomfield? Prinny's confidential adviser?"
Mr. Crockit was pained to his very eyelids. "In all else, madam, you may command me. But pray allow me to deal with your affairs in my own way."
"You are rather an amusing old dear," smiled Caroline, still with her elbow resting on the sofa side and her cheek against her hand. "Well! And then?"
"Darwent," said Mr. Crockit, "was condemned to death on the 19th. In these matters it is customary to permit seven days' grace, including one Sunday."
"May I ask why?"
"So that the condemned person may hear the preaching of an edifying sermon, and sit before a coffin as he does so. It is an excellent old custom.
"However!" continued Mr. Crockit, seeming all spectacles and forehead wrinkles as he bent forward. "In this case the death warrant was signed almost at once by the Secretary of State. Whereupon, through the good offices of Sir B., it was shown to ... to ..."
"You don't mean to Prinny himself?" cried Caroline.
Again pain twitched at Mr. Crockit's eyelids.
"To His Royal Highness the Prince Regent," assented Mr. Crockit in a low voice.
"And what did Prinny say?"
"His Royal Highness was told the entire story: a fair and accurate account, bear witness! His Royal Highness was filled with indignation; and also, I am told, with iced punch. The murdered man, Lord Francis Orford, was his near friend. Though it would appear ..."
"That Prinny had forgotten all about him? Yes?"
"In effect, yes. But His Royal Highness was graciously pleased to write across the death warrant, 'This sentence must be carried out.'"
"Oh, you are a dear! You are a jewel! You are a treasure!"
"I can but do my best. Madam, God Himself could not save Richard Darwent now."
There was a pause. Caroline sat upright, her hands folded. She seemed about to pour out more congratulations, when annoyance struck into her guarded life.
"Upon my soul," she said pettishly, "I can't have quiet in my own home! What is that insufferable noise down in the street?"
A movement of her eyebrows indicated that Mr. Crockit should ring the bell. Alfred, the first footman, was instructed to inquire about the disturbance. Any urchin in St. James's Square could have told him.
Major Percy, clattering up in his carriage to the door of number eighteen, had found Lord Castlereagh not at home. But the War Minister, they told him, was dining only a few doors away at the home of Mr. Boehm. Abovestairs, still over the wine, he found not only Lord Castlereagh; he found Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, and His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent.
But none of the sparks from their talk, now blown and adrift over London, touched the bijou drawing room with its dark-green curtains and its white-clad hostess.
"Then I am quite, quite safe!" murmured Caroline.
Whereupon Mr. Crockit lost his head.
"Before you do this," he burst out, "I implore you to stop and consider."
"I have considered, sir."
"Madam, it is a damned outrage!"
Caroline Ross merely looked at him.
"That will suffice, I think." Effortlessly she put him in his place, as though with a candle snuffer. "You yourself," she could not help adding, "told me that my grandfather's despicable and mean will could not be contested."
"No man can contest it. It is a good will."
"'A good will.'" repeated Caroline, and threw back her head. "God save us!"
"Can you bear in mind, madam, that you inherit a very great fortune?"
"As I have always expected to inherit it. Naturally!"
"Well! Under the law, believe me, your grandfather could have imposed conditions much more severe. He might have chosen you a husband. Instead, the only conditions attached to your inheritance is that you are married by your twenty-fifth birthday. Mark that! Married by your twenty-fifth birthday!"
Again there was a pause.
"Do you recall," Caroline said dreamily, "any particular phrase in the writing of that will?"
Excerpted from The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1958 Clarice M. Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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