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[-18-]

CHAPTER CXLIII

MORBID FEELINGS.   KATHERINE.

"HOLLOA, Banks!" exclaimed the executioner, "Got scent of this morning's work eh, old feller!"
    "Alas! my dear Mr. Smithers," returned the undertaker, shaking his head in a lachrymose manner, "if men will perpetrate such enormities, they must expect to go to their last home by means of a dance upon nothing."
    And, according to a custom which years had rendered a part of Mr. Banks's nature, he wiped his eyes with a dingy white pocket-handkerchief.
    "There he is again, the old fool!" ejaculated Smithers, with a coarse guffaw; "always a-wimpering! Why, you don't mean to say, Banks, that you care two straws about the feller that's going to be tucked up this morning?"
    "Ah! Smithers, you don't know my heart: I weep for frail human nature, and not only for the unhappy being that's so soon to be a blessed defunct carkiss. But, Smithers my boy "
    "Well?" cried the executioner.
    "How much is it to be this time for the rope?" asked Mr. Banks, in a tremulous tone and with another solemn shake of the head.
    "Five shillings not a mag under," was the prompt reply.
    "That's too much, Mr. Smithers too much," observed the undertaker of Globe Lane. "The last one I bought I lost by: times is changed, Mr. Smithers sadly changed."
    "Ain't the morbid feelings, as the press calls 'em, as powerful as ever?" demanded the executioner savagely.
    "The morbid feelings, thank God, is right as a trivet," answered Banks; "but it's the blunt that falls off, Smithers the blunt! And what's the use of the morbid feelings if there's no blunt to gratify 'em?"
    "Do you mean to tell me, Mr. Banks," cried the executioner, "that you can't get as ready a sale for the halters as you used to do?"
    "I'm afraid that such is the actiwal case, my dear friend," responded Mr. Banks, turning up his eyes in a melancholy manner. "The last blessed wictim that you operated upon, Mr. Smithers, you remember, I gived you five shillings for the rope; and I will say, in justice to him as spun it and them as bought it, that a nicer, stronger, or compacter bit of cord never supported carkiss to cross-beam. But wain was it that I coiled it neat up in my winder;   wain was it that I wrote upon a half sheet of foolscap, 'This is the halter that hung poor William Lees;' the morbid feelings was strong, 'cos the crowd collected opposite my house; but the filthy lucre, Smithers, was wanting. Well, there the damned I beg it's pardon the blessed cord stayed for a matter of three weeks; and I do believe it never would have gone at all, if some swell that was passing quite promiscuously one day didn't take a fancy to it "
    "Well, and what did he give you?" demanded the executioner impatiently.
    "Only twelve shillings, as true as I'm a woful sinner that hopes to be saved!" answered the undertaker.
    "Twelve shillings. eh? And how much would you have had for the rope?"
    "When the blunt doesn't fall short of the morbid feelings, I calkilates upon a guinea," answered Mr. Banks.
    "Why, you old rogue," shouted the executioner, "you know that you sold William Lees's rope a dozen times over. The moment the real one was disposed of, you shoved a counterfeit into your winder; and that went off so well, that you kept on till you'd sold a dozen."
    "No, Smithers never no such luck as that since Greenacre's business," said the undertaker, with a solemn shake of the head; "and then I believe I really did sell nineteen ropes in less than a week."
    "I only wonder people is such fools as to be gulled so," observed Smithers.
    "What can they say, when they see your certifikit that the rope's the true one?" demanded Banks. " There was one old gen'leman that dealt with me for a many many years; and he bought the rope of every blessed defunct that had danced on nothing at Newgate for upwards of twenty year! I quite entered into his feelings, I did I admired that man; and so I always sold him the real ropes. But time's passing, while I'm chattering here. Come, my dear Smithers shall we say three shillings for the rope and certifikit this morning?"
    "Not a mug less than five," was the dogged answer.
    "Four, my dear friend Smithers?" said the undertaker, with a whining, coaxing tone and manner.
    "No five, I tell you."
    "Well five then," said Banks. "I'll be there at a few minits 'afore nine: I s'pose you'll cut the carkiss down at the usual hour?"
    Yes yes," answered Smithers. "I'm always punctiwal with the dead as well as the living."
    The undertaker muttered something about "blessed defuncts," smoothed down the limp ends of his dirty cravat, and slowly withdrew, shaking his head more solemnly than ever.
    "See what it is to be a Public Executioner!" cried Smithers, turning with an air of triumph towards his son: "look at the perk visits look at the priweleges! And yet you go snivelling about like a young [-19-] gal, 'cos I want to make you fit to succeed me in my honourable profession."
    "O father!" cried the lad, unable to restrain his feelings any longer: "instead of being respected, we are abhorred instead of being honoured, our very touch is contamination! You yourself know, dear father, that you scarcely or never go abroad; if you enter the public-house tap-room, even in a neighbourhood so low as this, the people get up and walk away on different excuses. When I step out for an errand, the boys in the streets point at me; and those who are well-behaved, pass me with stealthy looks of horror and dread. Even that canting hypocrite who has just left us even he never crosses your threshold except when his interest is concerned; and yet be, they say, is connected with body-snatchers, and does not bear an over excellent character in his neighbourhood. Yet such a sneaking old wretch as that approaches our door with loathing Oh! I know that he does! You see, father dear father, that it is a horrible employment; then pray don't make me embrace it Oh! don't pray don't, father dear father: say you won't and I'll do anything else you tell me! I'll pick up rags and bones from the gutters I'll sweep chimnies I'll break stones from dawn to darkness; but do not do not make me an executioner!"
    Smithers was so astounded at this appeal that he had allowed it to proceed without interruption. He was accustomed to be addressed on the same subject, but never to such a length, nor with such arguments; so that the manner and matter of that prayer produced a strange impression on the man who constantly sought, by means of rude sophistries, to veil from himself and his family the true estimation in which his calling was held.
    Gibbet, mistaking his father's astonishment for a more favourable impression, threw himself at his feet, clasped his hands, and exclaimed, "Oh! do not turn a deaf ear to my prayer! And think not, dear father, that I confound you with that pursuit which I abhor; think not that I see other in you than my parent a parent whom "
    "Whom you shall obey!" cried the executioner, now recovering the use of his tongue: "or, by God!" he added, pointing with terrible ferocity towards the model-gallows, " I'll serve you as I did that puppet just now and as I shall do the man down in the Old Bailey presently."
    Gibbet rose disappointed, dispirited, and with a heart agitated by the most painful emotions.
    But why had not Smithers recourse to the leathern weapon as usual? why had he spared the poor hump-back on this occasion?
    Gibbet himself marvelled that such forbearance should have been shown towards him, since he now comprehended but too well that his father was inexorable in his determination with regard to him.
    The truth was that Smithers was so far struck by his son's appeal as to deem it of more serious import than any previously manifested aversion to his horrible calling; and he accordingly met it with a menace which he deemed to be more efficacious than the old discipline of the thong.
    "Now mind me," said the executioner, after a few moments' pause, "you needn't try any more of these snivelling antics: they won't succeed with me, I tell you before-hand if you don't do as I order you, I'll hang you up to that beam as soon as yonder mouse in the noose on the mantel. So let one word be enough. Hark! there's seven o'clock: we've only just time to get a mouthful before we must be off."
    Smithers proceeded downstairs, followed by Gibbet.
    They entered a little parlour, where Katherine was preparing breakfast.
    It being still dark, a candle stood on the table; and it's light was reflected in the polished metal teapot milk-jug and sugar-basin. The table napkin was of dazzling whiteness: the knives and forks were bright as steel could be; in a word, an air of exquisite neatness and cleanliness pervaded the board on which the morning's repast was spread.
    Nor was this appearance confined to the table. The little room itself was a model of domestic propriety. Not a speck of dust was to be seen on the simple furniture, which was also disposed with taste: the windows were set off with a clean muslin curtain; and the mantel was covered with fancy ornaments all indicative of female industry.
    Then Kate herself! her appearance was in perfect keeping with that of the room which owed its cleanliness and air of simple comfort to her. A neat cap set off her chesnut hair, which was arranged in plain bands; her dark stuff gown was made high in the body and long in the skirt, but did not conceal the gracefulness of her slender form, nor altogether prevent a little foot in a neat shoe and a well-turned ankle in a lily-white cotton stocking from occasionally revealing themselves. Then her hands were so slightly brown, her fingers so taper, and her nails so carefully kept, that no one, to look at them, would conceive how much hard work Katherine was compelled to do.
    Though so rigidly neat and clean, Kate had nothing of the coquette about her. She was as bashful and artless as a child; and, besides whom had she, the executioner's acknowledged niece, to captivate?
    Although she endeavoured to greet Smithers and the hump-back with a smile, a profound melancholy in reality oppressed her.
    It was one of those mornings when her uncle was to exercise his horrible calling: this circumstance would alone have deeply affected her spirits, which were never too light nor buoyant. But on the present occasion, another cause of sorrow weighed on her soul and that was the knowledge that her wretched cousin was that morning to enter on his fearful noviciate!
    She entertained a boundless compassion for that unfortunate being. His physical deformities, and the treatment which he experienced from his father, called forth the kindest sympathies of her naturally tender heart. Moreover, he had received instruction and was in the habit of seeking consolation from her: she was the only friend of that suffering creature who was persecuted alike by nature and by man; and she perhaps felt the more acutely on his account, because she was so utterly powerless in protecting him from the parental ferocity which drove him to her for comfort.
    She knew that a good a generous a kind and a deeply sensitive soul was enclosed within that revolting form; and she experienced acute anguish [-20-] when a brutal hand could wantonly torture so susceptible a spirit.
    And to that wounded, smarting spirit she herself was all kindness all softness all conciliation   all encouragement.
    No wonder, then, if the miserable son of the public executioner was devoted to her: no wonder if she were a goddess of light, and hope, and consolation, and bliss to him! To do her the slightest service was a source of the purest joy which that poor being could know: to be able to convince her by a deed, even so slight as picking up her thread when it fell, or placing her chair for her in its wonted situation, this, this was sublime happiness to the hump-back!
    He could sit for hours near her, without uttering a word but watching her like a faithful dog. And when her musical voice, fraught with some expression of kindness, fell upon his ear, how that hideous countenance would brighten up how those coarse lips would form a smile how those large dull orbs would glow with ineffable bliss!
    But when his father was unkind to her, unkind to Katherine, his only friend, unkind to the sole being that ever had looked not only without abhorrence, but with unadulterated gentleness on him,   then a new spirit seemed to animate him; and the faithful creature, who received his own stripes with spaniel-like irresistance, burst forth in indignant remonstrance when a blow was levelled at her. Then his rage grew terrible; and the resigned, docile, retiring hump-back became transformed into a perfect demon.
    How offensive to the delicate admirer of a maudlin romance, in which only handsome boys and pretty girls are supposed to be capable of playing at the game of Love, must be the statement which we are now about to make. But the reader who truly knows the world as it really is, will not start when we inform him that this being whom nature had formed in her most uncouth mould, this creature whose deformities seemed to render him a connecting link between man and monkey, this living thing that appeared to be but one remove above a monster, cherished a profound love for that young girl whom he esteemed as his guardian angel.
    But this passion was unsuspected by her, as its nature was unbeknown to himself. Of course it was not reciprocated: how could it be? Nevertheless, every proof of friendship every testimonial of kind feeling every evidence of compassion on her part, only tended to augment that attachment which the hump-back experienced for Katherine.
    "Well, Kate," said the executioner, as he took his seat at the breakfast-table, "I've drilled Gibbet into the art of pinioning at last."
    The girl made no answer; but she cast a rapid glance at the hump-back, and two tears trickled down her cheeks.
    "Come, Gibbet," answered Smithers; "we've no time to lose. Don't be afraid of your bread-and-butter: you'll get nothing to eat till you come home again to dinner."
    "Is John going with you this morning, uncle?" inquired Katherine timidly.
    "Why, you know he is. You only ask the question to get up a discussion once more about it, as you did last night."
    This was more or less true: the generous-hearted girl hoped yet to be able to avert her uncle from his intention in respect to the hump-back.
    "But I won't hear any more about it," continued the executioner, as he ate his breakfast. "And, then, why do you call him John?"
    "Did you not give him that name at his baptism?" said Kate.
    "And if I did, I've also the right to change it," returned the executioner; "and I choose him to be called Gibbet. It's more professional."
    "I think the grocer in High Street wants an errand boy, uncle," observed Katherine, with her eyes fixed upon her cup she dared not raise them to Smithers' face as she spoke: "perhaps he would take John I mean my cousin and that would be better than making him follow a calling which he does not fancy."
    "Mind your own business, Miss Imperence!" ejaculated the executioner; and let me mind mine. Now, then   who knocks at the front door?"
    Gibbet rose and hastened from the room.
    In a few moments he returned, holding in his hand a paper, which he gave to his father.
    "Ah! I thought so," said Smithers, as he glanced his eye over the paper: "my friend Dognatch is always in time. Here's the last dying speech, confession, and a true account of the execution of the man that I'm to tuck up presently   all cut and dry, you see. Well it's very kind of Dognatch always to send me a copy; but I suppose he thinks it's a compliment due to my sitiwation."
    With these words Smithers tossed off his tea, rose, and exclaimed, "Now Gibbet, my boy, we must be off."
    "Father, I don't feel equal to it," murmured the hump-back, who seemed fixed to his chair.
    "Come without another word!" cried the executioner, in so terrible a tone that Gibbet started from his seat as if suddenly moved by electricity.
    "Uncle uncle, you will not you cannot force this poor lad " began Katherine, venturing upon a last appeal in favour of the hump-back.
    "Kate," said the executioner, turning abruptly upon her, while his countenance wore so ferocious an expression of mingled determination and rage, that the young girl uttered an ejaculation of alarm, "Kate, do not provoke me; or "
    He said no more, but darted on her a look of such dark, diabolical menace, that she sank back, annihilated as it were, into her seat.
    She covered her face with her hands, and burst into an agony of tears.
    For some moments she remained absorbed in profound grief: the fate of the wretched humpback, and the idea that she herself was doomed to exist beneath the same roof with the horrible man whom she called her uncle, were causes of bitter anguish to her tender and sensitive soul.
    When she raised her head, and glanced timidly around, she found herself alone.

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