Odd Volume online

. (page 9 of 13)
Online LibraryVariousOdd Volume → online text (page 9 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

as sacred by the bystanders. Yet is my affliction, in truth, of the
deepest grain. The heaviest task that was ever given to mortal patience
to sustain. Time, that wears out all other sorrows, can never modify or
soften mine. Here they must continue to gnaw.

* London, 1810.

Why was I ever born? Why was innocence in my person suffered to be
branded with a stain which was appointed only for the blackest guilt?
What had I done, or my parents, that a disgrace of mine should involve a
whole posterity in infamy? I am almost tempted to believe, that, in some
preexistent state, crimes to which this sublunary life of mine hath been
as much a stranger as the babe that is newly born into it, have drawn
down upon me this vengeance, so disproportionate to my actions on this

My brain sickens, and my bosom labours to be delivered of the weight
that presses upon it, yet my conscious pen shrinks from the avowal. But
out it must -

O, Mr. Reflector! guess at the wretch’s misery who now writes this to
you, when, with tears and burning blushes, he is obliged to confess,
that he has been - Hanged-

Methinks I hear an involuntary exclamation burst from you, as your
imagination presents to you fearful images of your correspondent,
unknown, - _hanged!_

Fear not, Mr. Editor. No disembodied spirit has the honour of addressing
you. I am flesh and blood, an unfortunate system of bones, muscles,
sinews, arteries, like yourself.

_Then, I presume, you mean to be pleasant. That expression of yours, Mr.
Correspondent, must be taken somehow in a metaphorical sense_.

In the plainest sense, without trope or figure. Yes, Mr. Editor, this
neck of mine has felt the fatal noose, - these hands have tremblingly
held up the corroborative prayer-book, - these lips have sucked the
moisture of the last consolatory orange, - this tongue has chaunted the
doleful cantata which no performer was ever called upon to repeat, - this
face has had the veiling night-cap drawn over it.

But for no crime of mine. Far be it from me to arraign the justice of my
country, which, though tardy, did at length recognize my innocence. It
is not for me to reflect upon the judge or jury, now that eleven years
have elapsed since the erroneous sentence was pronounced. Men will
always be fallible, and perhaps circumstances did appear at the time a
little strong -

Suffice it to say, that after hanging four minutes, - (as the spectators
were pleased to compute it, - a man that is being strangled, I know from
experience, has altogether a different measure of time from his friends
who are breathing leisurely about him, I suppose the minutes lengthen as
time approaches eternity, in the same manner as the miles get longer as
you travel northward), - after hanging four minutes, according to the
best calculation of the bystanders, a reprieve came, and I was cut
down -

Really, I am ashamed of deforming your pages with these technical
phrases, if I knew how to express my meaning shorter -

But to proceed. - My first care, after I had been brought to myself by
the usual methods (those methods that are so interesting to the operator
and his assistants, who are pretty numerous on such occasions, but which
no patient was ever desirous of undergoing a second time for the benefit
of science), my first care was to provide myself with an enormous stock
or cravat, to hide the place - you understand me; my next care was to
procure a residence as distant as possible from that part of the country
where I had suffered. For that reason I chose the metropolis as the
place where wounded honour (I had been told) could lurk with the least
danger of exciting enquiry, and stigmatised innocence had the best
chance of hiding her disgrace in a crowd. I sought out a new circle
of acquaintance, and my circumstances happily enabling me to pursue my
fancy in that respect, I endeavoured, by mingling in all the pleasures
which the town affords, to efface the memory of what I had undergone.

But alas! such is the portentous and all-pervading chain of connection
which links together the head and members of this great community, my
scheme of lying _perdu_ was defeated almost at the outset. A countryman
of mine, whom a foolish lawsuit had brought to town, by chance met me,
and the secret was soon blazoned about.

In a short time, I found myself deserted by most of those who had been
my intimate friends. Not that any guilt was supposed to attach to my
character. My officious countryman, to do him justice, had been candid
enough to explain my perfect innocence. But, somehow or other, there
is a want of strong virtue in mankind. We have plenty of the softer
instincts, but the heroic character is gone. How else can I account for
it, that of all my numerous acquaintance, among whom I had the honour of
ranking sundry persons of education, talents, and worth, scarcely here
and there one or two could be found, who had the courage to associate
with a man that had been hanged.

Those few who did not desert me altogether, were persons of strong but
coarse minds; and from the absence of all delicacy in them, I suffered
almost as much as from the super-abundance of a false species of it
in the others. Those who stuck by me were the jokers, who thought
themselves entitled, by the fidelity which they had shown towards me,
to use me with what familiarity they pleased. Many and unfeeling are the
jests that I have suffered from these rude (because faithful) Achateses.
As they passed me in the streets, one would nod significantly to his
companion and say, pointing to me, smoke his cravat, and ask me if I
had got a wen, that I was so solicitous to cover my neck. Another would
enquire, what news from * * * Assizes? (which you may guess, Mr. Editor,
was the scene of my shame) and whether the sessions was like to prove
a maiden one? A third would offer to ensure me from drowning. A fourth
would teaze me with enquiries how I felt when I was swinging, whether I
had not something like a blue flame dancing before my eyes? A fifth
took a fancy never to call me any thing but _Lazarus_. And an eminent
bookseller and publisher, who, in his zeal to present the public with
new facts, had he lived in those days, I am confident, would not have
scrupled waiting upon the person himself last mentioned, at the most
critical period of his existence, to solicit a _few facts relative to
resuscitation_, had the modesty to offer me - guineas per sheet, if I
would write, in his Magazine, a physiological account of my feelings
upon coming to myself.

But these were evils which a moderate fortitude might have enabled me
to struggle with. Alas! Mr. Editor, the women, - whose good graces I had
always most assiduously cultivated, from whose softer minds I had hoped
a more delicate and generous sympathy than I found in the men, - the
women began to shun me - this was the unkindest blow of all.

But is it to be wondered at? How couldest thou imagine, wretched est of
beings, that that tender creature Seraphina would fling her pretty arms
about that neck which previous circumstances had rendered infamous? That
she would put up with the refuse of the rope, the leavings of the cord?
Or that any analogy could subsist between the knot which binds true
lovers, and the knot which ties malefactors.

I can forgive that pert baggage Flirtilla, who, when I complimented her
one day on the execution which her eyes had done, replied, that to be
sure, Mr. * * was a judge of those things. But from thy more exalted
mind, Celestina, I expected a more unprejudiced decision.

The person whose true name I conceal under this appellation, of all the
women that I was ever acquainted with, had the most manly turn of
mind, which she had improved by reading and the best conversation.
Her understanding was not more masculine, than her manners and whole
disposition were delicately and truly feminine. She was the daughter
of an officer who had fallen in the service of his country, leaving his
widow and Celestina, an only child, with a fortune sufficient to set
them above want, but not to enable them to live in splendour. I had the
mother’s permission to pay my addresses to the young lady, and Celestina
seemed to approve of my suit.

Often and often have I poured out my overcharged soul in the presence
of Celestina, complaining of the hard and unfeeling prejudices of
the world; and the sweet maid has again and again declared, that
no irrational prejudice should hinder her from esteeming every man
according to his intrinsic worth. Often has she repeated the consolatory
assurance, that she could never consider as essentially ignominious
an _accident_, which was indeed to be deprecated, but which might have
happened to the most innocent of mankind. - Then would she set forth some
illustrious example, which her reading easily furnished, of a Phocion
or a Socrates unjustly condemned; of a Raleigh or a Sir Thomas More, to
whom late posterity had done justice; and by soothing my fancy with
some such agreeable parallel, she would make me almost to triumph in my
disgrace, and convert my shame into glory.

In such entertaining and instructive conversations the time passed on,
till I importunately urged the mistress of my affections to name a day
for our union. To this she obligingly consented, and I thought myself
the happiest of mankind. But how was I surprised one morning on the
receipt of the following billet from my charmer: -

“Sir, - You must not impute it to levity, or to a worse
failing, ingratitude, if, with anguish of heart, I feel
myself compelled by irresistible arguments to recal a vow
which I fear I made with too little consideration. I never
can be yours. The reasons of my decision, which is final,
are in my own breast, and you must everlastingly remain a
stranger to them. Assure yourself that I can never cease to
esteem you as I ought.”


At the sight of this paper, I ran in frantic haste to Celestina’s
lodgings, where I learned, to my infinite mortification, that the mother
and daughter were set off on a journey to a distant part of the country,
to visit a relation, and were not expected to return in less than four

Stunned by this blow, which left me without the courage to solicit an
explanation by letter, even if I had known where they were (for the
particular address was industriously concealed from me), I waited with
impatience the termination of the period, in the vain hope that I might
be permitted to have a chance of softening the harsh decision, by a
personal interview with Celestina after her return. But before three
months were at an end, I learned from the newspapers, that my beloved
had - given her hand to another!

Heart-broken as I was, I was totally at a loss to account for the
strange step which she had taken; and it was not till some years after,
that I learned the true reason from a female relation of hers, to whom
it seems Celestina had confessed in confidence, that it was no demerit
of mine that had caused her to break off the match so abruptly, nor any
preference which she might feel for any other person, for she preferred
me (she was pleased to say) to all mankind; but when she came to lay the
matter closer to her heart, she found that she never should be able to
bear the sight - (I give you her very words as they were detailed to me
by her relation) - the sight of a man in a nightcap, who had appeared on
a public platform; it would lead to such a disagreeable association of
ideas! And to this punctilio I was sacrificed.

To pass over an infinite series of minor mortifications, to which this
last and heaviest might well render me callous, behold me here, Mr.
Editor! in the thirty-seventh year of my existence (the twelfth,
reckoning from my re-animation), cut off from all respectable
connexions, rejected by the fairer half of the community, - who in my
case alone seem to have laid aside the characteristic pity of their sex;
punished because I was once punished unjustly; suffering for no other
reason than because I once had the misfortune to suffer without any
cause at all. In no other country, I think, but this, could a man have
been subject to such a life-long persecution, when once his innocence
had been clearly established.

Had I crawled forth a rescued victim from the rack in the horrible
dungeons of the Inquisition, - had I heaved myself up from a half
bastinado in China, or been torn from the just-entering, ghastly
impaling stake in Barbary, - had I dropt alive from the knout in
Russia, or come off with a gashed neck from the half-mortal,
scarce-in-time-retracted scymetar of an executioneering slave in
Turkey, - I might have borne about the remnant of this frame (the mangled
trophy of reprieved innocence) with credit to myself, in any of those
barbarous countries. No scorn, at least, would have mingled with the
pity (small as it might be) with which what was left of me would have
been surveyed.

The singularity of my case has often led me to enquire into the reasons
of the general levity with which the subject of hanging is treated as
a topic in this country. I say as a topic; for let the very persons who
speak so lightly of the thing at a distance, be brought to view the real
scene, - let the platform be _bona fide_ exhibited, and the trembling
culprit brought forth, - the case is changed; but as a topic of
conversation, I appeal to the vulgar jokes which pass current in every
street. But why mention them, when the politest authors have agreed in
making use of this subject as a source of the ridiculous? Swift, and
Pope, and Prior, are fond of recurring to it. Gay has built an entire
drama upon this single foundation. The whole interest of the _Beggar’s
Opera_ may be said to hang upon it. To such writers as Fielding and
Smollett it is a perfect _bon bouche_. - Hear the facetious Tom Brown, in
his _Comical View of London and Westminster_, describe the _Order of the
Show at one of the Tyburn executions_ in his time: - “Mr. Ordinary
visits his melancholy flock in Newgate, by eight. Doleful procession
up Holborn-hill, about eleven. Men handsome and proper that were never
thought so before, which is some comfort, however. Arrive at the fatal
place by twelve. Burnt brandy, women, and Sabbath-breaking, repented
of. Some few penitential drops fall under the gallows. Sheriffs’ men,
parson, pickpockets, criminals, all very busy. The last concluding
peremptory psalm struck up. Show over by one.” - In this sportive strain
does this misguided wit think proper to play with a subject so serious,
which yet he would hardly have done, if he had not known that there
existed a predisposition in the habits of his unaccountable countrymen
to consider the subject as a jest. But what shall we say to Shakspeare,
who (not to mention the solution which the _Grave-digger_ in _Hamlet_
gives of his fellow workman’s problem), in that scene in _Measure for
Measure_, where the _Clown_ calls upon _Master Barnardine_ to get up and
be hanged, which he declines on the score of being sleepy, has
actually gone out of his way to gratify this amiable propensity in his
countrymen; for it is plain, from the use that was to be made of his
head, and from _Abhorson’s_ asking, “is the axe upon the block,
Sirrah?” that beheading, and not hanging, was the punishment to which
_Barnardine_ was destined. But Shakspeare knew that the axe and block
were pregnant with no ludicrous images, and, therefore, falsified the
historic truth of his own drama (if I may so speak) rather than he
would leave out such excellent matter for a jest as the suspending of a
fellow-creature in mid air has been ever esteemed to be by Englishmen.

One reason why the ludicrous never fails to intrude itself into our
contemplations upon this mode of death, I suppose to be, the absurd
posture into which a man is thrown who is condemned to dance, as the
vulgar delight to express it, upon nothing. To see him whisking and
wavering in the air, to behold the vacant carcase, from which the life
is newly dislodged, shifting between earth and heaven, the sport of
every gust; like a weathercock, serving to show from which point the
wind blows; like a maukin, fit only to scare away birds; like a nest
left to swing upon a bough when the bird is flown; these are uses to
which we cannot, without a mixture of spleen and contempt, behold the
human carcase reduced. We string up dogs, foxes, bats, moles, weasels.
Man surely deserves a steadier death.

As the wind you know will wave a man; *

* Hieronimo in the Spanish tragedy.

Another reason why the ludicrous associates more forcibly with this than
with any other mode of punishment, I cannot help thinking to be, the
senseless costume with which an old prescription has thought fit to
clothe the exit of malefactors in this country. Let a man do what
he will to abstract from his imagination all idea of the whimsical,
something of it will come across him when he contemplates the figure of
a fellow-creature in the day-time (in however distressing a situation)
in a night-cap. Whether it be that this nocturnal addition has something
discordant with day-light, or that it is the dress which we are seen in
at those times when we are “seen,” as the Angel in Milton expresses it,
“least wise;” this I am afraid will always be the case; unless, indeed,
as in my instance, some strong personal feeling overpower the ludicrous
altogether. To me, when I reflect upon the train of misfortunes which
have pursued me through life, owing to that accursed drapery, the cap
presents as purely frightful an object as the sleeveless yellow coat
and devil-painted mitre of the San Benitos. An ancestor of mine, who
suffered for his loyalty in the time of the civil wars, was so sensible
of the truth of what I am here advancing, that, on the morning of
execution, no entreaties could prevail upon him to submit to the odious
dishabile, as he called it, but he insisted upon wearing, and actually
suffered in, the identical flowing periwig which he is painted in, in
the gallery belonging to my uncle’s seat.

Suffer me, Mr. Editor, before I quit the subject, to say a word or two
respecting the minister of justice in this country; in plain words,
I mean the hangman. It has always appeared tome, that, in the mode
of inflicting capital punishments with us, there is too much of the
ministry of the human hand. The guillotine, as performing its functions
more of itself, and sparing human agency, though a cruel and disgusting
exhibition, in my mind, has in many ways the advantage over _our way_.
In beheading, indeed, as it was formerly practised in England, and in
whipping to death, as is sometimes practised now, the hand of man is no
doubt sufficiently busy; but there is something less repugnant in these
downright blows, than in the officious barber-like ministrings of the
other. To have a fellow with his hangman’s hands fumbling about your
collar, adjusting the thing as your valet would regulate your cravat,
valuing himself on his menial dexterity - I never shall forget meeting
my rascal - I mean the fellow who officiated for me, - in London
last winter. I think I see him now, - in a waistcoat that had been
mine, - smirking along as if he knew me.

[Illustration: 265]

In some parts of Germany that fellow’s office is by law declared
infamous, and his posterity incapable of being ennobled. They have
hereditary hangmen, or had at least, in the same manner as they had
other hereditary great officers of state, and the hangman’s families of
two adjoining parishes intermarried with each other, to keep the breed
entire. I wish something of the same kind were established in England.

But it is time to quit a subject which teems with disagreeable images,
lest we should suffer by _contamination._

Permit me to subscribe myself, Mr. Editor, your unfortunate
friend, - Pensilis.


[Illustration: 267]


Marshal Mont-Jean was as respectable a soldier as good king Francis had
in his army. It was currently reported in his troop that he had once
been young, although his hair was now grey, and that he had once
been alert, although the wounds from sword, lance, and bullet, which
cicatrised his body all over, had rendered him fit only for garrison
duty. He was entrusted with an important fortress on the frontiers of
Piedmont, for his royal master knew that his stiff and shrivelled body
would as little think of budging from before an enemy as the stone and
lime he was set to guard.

Marshal Mont-Jean had a young wife - a lineal descendant of the noble
family of Chateaubriant - a girl in her seventeenth year, of a clear
car-nated complexion, through which the eloquent blood shone forth at
every word she spoke, with dark eyes at once penetrating and winning,
and with an elastic, buoyant, coquettish sort of a gait. Owing to family
politics, she had been married to the marshal before she very well knew
what marriage was. Naturally of an affectionate disposition, she loved
the tough old soldier - who, imperative and stern to all others, was
gentle to her - as a daughter might have done. Her little thoughts ran
more upon her gowns, headtires, and feathers, than any thing else.
She would have had no objections, had it lain in her power, to have
displayed these objects of her affections before the eyes of young
French gallants, but unluckily there were none such within reach. The
soldiers of the garrison were old and grizzled as their commander, or
the walls they tenanted. The Marquis of Saluzzo visited the marshal
sometimes, to be sure; but although not exactly old, he was ugly. His
features were irregular, his eyes dull and bleared, his complexion a
yellowish black: he had a big belly and a round back, and was heavy and
lumpish in all his motions. So the pretty lady had no one to please by
her dresses but herself, her handmaidens, and her venerable husband. And
yet she was daily dressed like the first princess of the land. It had
been a fair sight to see the delicate ape attired like unto some stately
queen, and striving to give to her petite figure, mincing steps, and
laughing looks, an air of solemn and stately reserve.

Every thing has an end, at least the life of Marshal Mont-Jean had.
His little widow was sincerely sorry, but her grief was not exactly
heartbreaking. She had respected him, but love was out of the question;
and with all her esteem for the man, and resignation to her fate, there
was something unnatural in the union of persons so widely differing in
age. But had she been ever so inclined to lament him, she would not
have had time. She was under the necessity of transporting herself
immediately, with all her own and her late husband’s retainers, to her
estates in France, and she had not a single sol left in her possession.
Her estates were large, but even had there been time to await the
arrival of money from them, the times were too unsafe to hazard its
transmission. The country around her was too mountainous, and its air
too pure and keen to nourish usurers. Her dresses were of immense value,
but there was no one near who cared for such frippery, or could or would
advance money upon its pledge. The little lady was at her wit’s end.

She felt no great alleviation of her troubles, when one day - after
wondering for a quarter of an hour what was the meaning of the tan tara
of trumpets before the gate, and the clattering of horses’ hoofs in the
court-yard - the Marquis of Saluzzo was ushered into her presence. He was
gaily apparelled in a tunic and hose of white silk, laced with silver,
and a hat of the same materials, with bushy white plumes waving over his
head. This costume communicated to his countenance - which rivalled in
colour the feet of a duck that has all day been wading in the mud - a
yet more repulsive expression. The young widow thought - when she saw
the portly belly come swagging into the hall before its owner, and
the worshipful marquis panting after it, with a multitude of ungainly
bows - that she had never seen any thing half so hideous.

[Illustration: 273]

Her visitor came at once to the point, for he was none of those who are
troubled with a fastidious delicacy. He had learned the situation of
embarrassment in which the marshal had left his lady, and came to inform
her that he was himself on the road to Paris, whither, if she would
favour him with her company, and join her train of attendants with his,
he would defray her expenses. He urged her acceptance of his proffered
aid with garrulous and indelicate importunity, fixing his gooseberry

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13

Online LibraryVariousOdd Volume → online text (page 9 of 13)