Oranges And Lemons
When will ye pay me,
Ring ye bells of Old Bailey.
When indeed. Surely I was going mad. I could reason out no other explanation why a child’s rhyme would occupy my thoughts on that cold morning before I was to face the hangman. The time was growing near when I, too, was to follow the path worn into the dismal stone passage beyond my cell door leading to the gallows. A path worn deep by all that were deemed wretched in this world, deserving or not, but condemned just the same to leave this world dangling lifeless from the taut end of a course length of hemp.
I heard the footsteps of the clerk from St. Sepulcher’s as he made his way down the passage, pausing at my cell door. His bell tolled, repeatedly and with long pauses between each ring, announcing to all in earshot the coming execution of the sentence afforded me by the court. A sentence justly appropriate for the guilty of such a heinous crime but never appropriate for the wrongly accused, as I so boisterously, and at times belligerently, addressed my accusers. At the end I was alone without voice nor hope to stay my execution. My face aged, my hair grayed from the thought of the gallows and the collar that awaited my neck. I was labeled mad by the prosecutor, so it’s mad I must be. Such was my fate; as was the fate of those wretched men before me whose shoulders wore smooth the cold section of stone I rested against.
As I looked up from the floor, my arm resting on a square wooden bench, which was as much a table as it was a chair, I was confronted with the dismal history of my cell. The dim light of a gray morning, reluctantly drifting in through the crossed steel bars covering my only glimpse of the life I would soon leave behind, drew out the last thoughts of those I was soon to walk amongst. Every inch of the grimy stone walls had been etched with the pathetic pleas for mercy or forgiveness for the sins that brought this refuse of society to their end. The writing was barely discernable, but the intent was obvious. Those petitions for mercy, those desperate attempts to leave behind some token of existence, appeared little more than a crude imitation of a patterned wall covering to my educated eye. Layer upon layer of incoherent scribbling ran together, blurred from the soot and grime deposited by the years that stood witness to the hundreds who came before, removing all hope of salvation. Those walls were cold and hard, a reflection of the verdicts delivered to the souls unfortunate enough to gaze upon them. I had no intention of leaving this life behind in such a fashion.
I made only one request of the Keeper. Whether for my youth of eight and twenty years or just a genuine kindness for my politeness in manner, I will be forever grateful for the paper and pen left for me. The inkwell was less than half full but it was more than adequate for my needs. My intent was to leave behind some small note of regret for my fate, fulfilling a personal desire to make one last claim of innocence. Afterwards, I reserved a small amount of water in my wooden cup to assist me in what was to be a final act of mercy on my soul.
I was told from other prisoners I met in the quadrangle that a vial of arsenic could be obtained for a price from the turnkeys. If caught bargaining such a deal, a turnkey could find himself on the other side of a cell door, but the fruition of the transaction left no fear of accusation. I had no money, nor a means to acquire any. What I did have was an exceptionally well-made pair of leather boots. I kept them buffed to a high shine, having torn a pocket from my trousers for use as a polishing cloth. They hadn’t gone unnoticed by the turnkeys, having twice broken up attacks on my person by other prisoners wanting to acquire the footwear for themselves. The deal was struck, the exchange made under cover of night to protect the turnkey. By the time I was moved to my cell in the ward where the condemned await their fate I stood content in my stocking feet, knowing I would at least cheat the hangman.
I had but a few hours left before the warrant for my execution arrived. I pulled from my pocket the small glass vial, pulling out the stopper and pouring the deadly liquid into the remains of my water. There was no comfort to be found on the cold, damp floor of a Newgate cell. My solace came from warm memories of a life with loving parents. Putting thoughts together for a final note I reflected back over the facts leading to the desperate situation I then found myself in. When finished, and with a mind at peace and in acceptance of what I had resigned to do next, I would take a final sip of this life.
To be continued...