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[-4-]

CHAPTER CXXXVIII.

    A PUBLIC FUNCTIONARY.

URGED by that sense of duty to which we have before alluded, and which prompted him to neglect no step that might lead to the discovery of a great criminal's lurking-place, Richard accompanied the police officer to various houses where the dregs of the population herded together.
    The inspection of a plague-hospital could not have been more appalling: the scrutiny of a lazar-house could not have produced deeper disgust.
    In some the inmates were engaged in drunken broils, the women enacting the part of furies: in others the females sang obscene songs, the men joining in the chorus.
    Here a mother waited until her daughter should return with the wages of prostitution, to purchase the evening meal: there a husband boasted that his wife was enabled, by the liberality of a paramour, to supply him with ample mans for his night's debauchery.
    In one house which our hero and the constable visited, three sisters of the respective ages of eleven, thirteen, and fourteen, were comparing the produce of their evening's avocations, the avocations of the daughters of crime!
    And then those three children, having portioned out the necessary amount for their suppers and their lodging that night, and their breakfast next morning, laughed joyously as they perceived how much they had left to purchase gin! [-5-]
    For Gin is the deity, and INTEMPERANCE is the hand-maiden, of both sexes and nearly all ages in that district of London.
    What crimes, what follies have been perpetrated for Gin! A river of alcohol rolls through the land, sweeping away health, honour, and happiness with its remorseless tide. The creaking gibbet, and the prison ward   the gloomy hulk, and the far-off penal isle the debtors' gaol, and the silent penitentiary   the tomb-like workhouse, and the loathsome hospital   the galling chain, and the spirit-breaking tread-wheel the frightful mad-cell, and the public dissecting-room the death-bed of despair, and the grave of the suicide, are indebted for many, many victims to thee, most potent GIN!
    O GIN! the Genius of Accidents and the Bad Angel of Offences worship thee! Thou art the Juggernaut beneath whose wheels millions throw themselves in blind adoration.
    The pawnbroker points to thee and says, "Whilst thy dominion lasts, I am sure to thrive."
    The medical man smiles as he marks thy progress, for he knows that thou leadest a ghastly train,   apoplexy, palsy, dropsy, delirium tremens, consumption, madness.
    The undertaker chuckles when he remembers thins influence, for he says within himself, "Thou art the Angel of Death."
    And Satan rejoices in his kingdom, well-knowing how thickly it can be populated by thee!
    Yes great is thy power, O GIN: thou keepest pace with the progress of civilisation, and thou art made the companion of the Bible. For when the missionary takes the Word of God to the savage in some far distant clime, he bears the fire-water with him at the same time. While his right hand points to the paths of peace and salvation, his left scatters the seeds of misery, disease, death, and damnation!
    Yes great is thy power, O Gin: a terrible instrument of evil art thou. Thou swoopest over the world with the wing of the pestilence: thy breath is that of a plague: like the poisonous garment of Deianira on the burning limbs of the Centaur, dost thou cling around thy victims.
    And where the grave-yard is heaped up with mouldering bones   and where disease and death prevail in all their most hideous shapes and where misery is most keenly felt, and poverty is most pinching and where the wails of hapless children ascend to heaven in vain appeal against the cruelty of inhuman parents and where crime is most diabolical, there are thy triumphs there are thy victories! But to continue.
    The clock of St. Giles's Church proclaimed the hour of midnight; and though our hero and the Constable had visited many of the low dens and lodging-houses in the Holy Land, still their search was without success.
    "Unless my mates have been more lucky than us," observed the policeman, halting at the corner of a street, "we must conclude that the bird is flown."
    "And even if they should chance to enter a house where the miscreant has taken refuge, how would they be enabled to recognise him!" asked Richard.
    "One of them knows him well," replied the constable.
    At that moment a violent scream issued from the upper part of the house close to which Markham and the constable were standing.
    The dwelling was high, narrow, and, if possible, more gloomy, when viewed by the feeble rays of a watery moon, than the neighbouring houses.
    From the uppermost window streamed a strong light, which danced upon the black wall of the building opposite, making the sombre appearance of the locality the more sinister as it was the more visible.
    That scream, which expressed both horror and agony, caused Markham to start with momentary consternation.
    The constable did not, however, appear surprised, but merely observed with a strange coolness, "Ah, there's Smithers at his old tricks again."
    "And who is Smithers?" inquired Richard. But before the constable could reply to the question, the window, whence the light emanated, was thrown up with crashing violence, and a female voice shrieked for assistance.
    "Had we not better ascertain what is the matter here?" exclaimed Markham, hastily.
    "I dare not force an entry, unless there's a cry of 'Murder,'" answered the officer.
    Scarcely were these words uttered when the sound of a heavy blow, like that of a thong or leathern strap upon a person's back, echoed along the street; and then terrific shrieks, mingled with cries of "Murder!" issued from the open window.
    In another instant the female was dragged away from the casement by some one in the room where this scene occurred; then the blows were resumed with frightful severity, and the screams and cries continued in a more appalling manner than at first. Immediately afterwards, and just as the constable was preparing to force an entry, some one was heard to rush precipitately down the stairs inside the house: the door opened, and a strange-looking being darted madly into the street.
    "Now, Gibbet," cried the policeman, catching the hump-backed lad for such Markham perceived him to be by the collar, "what's all this about?"
    "Oh! you are an officer! " exclaimed the hump-back, in a tone of surprise and delight: "for God's sake come up father's murdering Kate!"
    The screams and the sounds of the blows still continuing up stairs, the constable did not hesitate to comply with the request of the deformed lad whom he had saluted by the singular name of Gibbet; and Markham hastened after him, anxious to render any assistance that might be required at his hands.
    The policeman and our here hurried up the narrow stairs, lighted by the officer's bull's-eye; and speedily reached the room whence the screams had emanated.
    But we must pause for a moment to describe that apartment, and to give the reader some idea of the inmates of the house to which we have introduced him.
    The room was situated at the top of the house and bore the appearance of a loft, there being no ceiling to conceal the massive beams and spars which supported the angular roof.
    From one of the horizontal beams hung a stuffed figure, resembling a human being, and as large as life. It was dressed in a complete suit of male attire; and a white mask gave it the real but ghastly, appearance of a dead body. It was suspended by a thick cord, or halter, the knot of which being fastened beneath the left ear, made the head incline somewhat over the right shoulder; and it was waving gently backwards and forwards, as if it had been recently disturbed. The arms were pinioned behind; and the hands, which were made more or less life-like by means of dingy white kid gloves, were curled up as it were in a last convulsion. In a word, it presented the exact appearance of a man hanging.
    Markham started back when his eyes first fell on this sinister object; but a second glance convinced bun that the figure was only a puppet.
    This second survey brought to his view other features, calculated to excite his wonder and curiosity, In that strange apartment.
    The figure .already described was suspended in such a way that its lower extremity was about a foot from the ground; but it was concealed nearly up to the knees by a small scaffold, or large black box, It having been suffered to fall that much through a trap-door made like a drop in the platform of that diminutive stage.
    From this strange spectacle, which, in all respects, was a perfect representation of an execution Markham's eyes wandered round the loft.
    The walls the rough brick-work of which was smeared over with white-wash, were covered with rude pictures, glaringly coloured and set in common black wooden frames. These pictures were such as are sold in low neighbourhoods for a few pence each, and representing scenes in the lives of remarkable highwaymen, murderers, and other criminals who had ended their days upon the scaffold. The progress of Jack Sheppard to the gibbet at Tyburn,-   the execution of Jonathan Wild,   Turpin's ride to York, Sawney Bean and his family feasting off human flesh in their cave, Hunt and Thurtell throwing the body of Mr. Weare into the pond, Corder murdering Maria Martin at the Red Barn, James Greenacre cutting up the corpse of Hannah Brown, such were the principal subjects of that Gallery of Human Enormity.
    But as if these pictorial mementos of crime and violent death were not sufficient to gratify the grange taste of the occupants of that apartment, some hand, which was doubtless the agent of an imagination that loved to "sup full of horrors," had scrawled with a burnt stick upon the wall various designs of an equally terrific nature. Gibbets of all forms, and criminals in all the different stages of their last minutes in this life, were there represented. The ingenuity of the draughtsman had even suggested improvements in the usual modes of execution, and had delineated drops, halters, and methods of pinioning on new principles"
    Every thing in that spacious loft savoured of the scaffold!
    Oh! had the advocates of capital punishment but been enabled to glance upon that scene of horrors, they would have experienced a feeling of dire regret that any system which they had supported could have led to such an exhibition!
    But to proceed.
    On a rude board which served as a mantel over the grate, was a miniature gibbet, about eight inches high, and suspended to the horizontal beam of which was a mouse most scientifically hung with a strong piece of pack-thread.
    The large silver watch belonging to the principal inmate of the house was suspended to a horizontal piece of wood, with an oblique supporter, projecting from the wall above the fire-place.
    In one corner of the room was a bed, over which flowed curtains of a coarse yellow material; and even these were suspended to a spar arranged and propped up like the arm of a gibbet.
    A table, on which the supper things still remained, and half a dozen chairs, completed the contents of this strange room.
    And now a few words relative to the inmates of that house.
    The hump-backed lad who had rushed down the stairs in the manner already described, was about seventeen or eighteen years of age, and so hideously ugly that he scarcely seemed to belong to the human species. His hair was fiery red, and covered with coarse and matted curls a huge head that would not have been unsuitable for the most colossal form. His face was one mass of freckles; his eyes were of a pinkish hue; his eyebrows and lashes were white; and his large teeth glittered like dominoes between his thick and blueish lips. His arms were long like those of a baboon; but his legs were short; and he was not more than four feet and a half high. In spite of his hideous deformity and almost monstrous ugliness, there was an air of good-nature about him, Combined with an evident consciousness of his own repulsive appearance, which could not do otherwise than inspire compassion if not interest.
    The moment the policeman, who entered the room first, made his appearance upon the threshold, a young female precipitated herself towards him, exclaiming, "For God's sake protect me but do not, do not hurt my uncle!"
    This girl was about sixteen years of age, and, though not beautiful, possessed a countenance whose plaintive expression was calculated to inspire deep interest in her behalf. She was tall, and of a graceful figure: her hair was light chesnut; her eyes dark blue, and with a deep melancholy characterising their bashful glances; her teeth were small, white, and even. Though clad in humble attire, there was something genteel in her appearance, something superior to the place and society in which we now find her.
    The man from whose cruel blows she implored protection, was of middle height, rather stoutly built, with a pale countenance, and an expression of stern hard-heartedness In his large grey eyes and compressed lips. He was dressed In a suit which evidently had never been made for him, the blue frock coat being too long In the sleeves, the waistcoat too wide round the waist, and the trousers scarcely reaching below the knees.
    "For God's sake protect me!" exclaimed the young girl, as above stated; "but do not do not hurt my uncle," she added in a tone which proved the sincerity of the prayer.
    "Come, come, Master Smithers," said the constable, "this won't do: you musn't alarm the neighbourhood in this manner."
    "Why, then, does she interfere between us and Gibbet?" cried the man, brutally, at the same time flourishing a thick leathern thong in his right hand.
    "She does it out of good-nature, I suppose," observed the constable. "Every one knows how shameful you treat your son Gibbet; and this poor gal takes her cousin's part." [-7-]
    At these words the hump-back cast a timid but affectionate glance towards Katherine, who, on her pert, threw a look of profound compassion upon the unfortunate lad.
    "She does it out of good-nature, does she?" reposted the man: "then why won't he learn my business? He never can be fit for any other. But, no   the moment I leave him, he is off to the side of Miss there; and she makes him read in her outlandish books, so that he despises his father and the business that he must take to, sooner or later."
    "But you ought not to beat Miss Katherine, Smithers," reiterated the policeman. "The next time I hear the cry of 'Murder' in your house I'll walk you off to the station and that's all about it."
    "I suppose that I may leather my own son if I choose?" said the man, savagely.
    "You ought to remember that he is deformed through your cruelty," cried the constable, "and that his mother died of fright and grief "
    "Hold your tongue, blue-bottle!" interrupted Smithers, his lips quivering with rage. "It isn't for you to come and make mischief in a family. Get out with you!"
    "But if we leave this poor girl to the rage of her uncle," said Markham to the constable, whom he drew aside and thus addressed in a whisper, "he will do her some injury."
    "What is to be done with her, sir?" demanded the officer. "Smithers says she is his niece "
    "Is it not certain that she stands in such a degree of relationship towards him?" inquired our hero, whose humane heart was moved in favour of the suffering girl.
    "Now, then, what are you chattering about there?" ejaculated Smithers. "I want to go to bed: Gibbet, you be off to your room and, Kate, you go to yours. This is mine and I should advise the blue-bottle with his spy in plain clothes to make themselves scarce."
    "Remember, I shall report you to our serjeant," laid the policeman; "and he will tell the Division to keep an eye on you."
    "Tell him whatever you like," returned the man doggedly.
    The hump-back and Katherine had already left the room in obedience to the command of Smithers.
    The constable repeated a caution to the ruffian who had ill-used them, and then took his departure, followed by Richard Markham.
    When they were once more in the street, our hero said to his companion, "Who is that man?"
    "THE PUBLIC EXECUTIONER," was the reply.    

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