GRAHAM ADRIAN : TWO SISTERS
Nance Auldfield had dreaded the crowd even more than being hanged. But now her growing fear was not that there would be ‘nothing’ beyond the drop, but that there might indeed be another world, a parallel existence where her sufferings would continue and perhaps increase. In the twilight, she had glimpsed something in the water basin, before shrieking and sending it flying with a fist. A face! In the moonlit cell, a disembodied face gazed back. Yet it was no reflection but her sister’s face – a sister dead for many years.
Her tortured mind shifted back to the crowd as the noisy chatter from below, wafted on the evening breeze, told her that people were already gathering. In a few hours she would be paraded before the whole of Ipswich and the very people with whom she had lived and worked. Yes, there may be a friend or two to offer a prayer, but most would be ‘honest citizens’, there by right to see justice done. The truth was that they wanted their morbid curiosity satisfied and their pious expectations fulfilled, by way of entertainment. After all, executions were intended to draw spectators. “If they do not,” Dr Samuel Johnson had declared, “they do not answer their purpose.”
All day the gaol had rung with hammer blows as the gallows was erected. She heard they were building it high up beside the outer gate to give everyone a better view, and she knew that as she dropped her skirts would open… That would surely amuse the crowd, that raucous, unruly, derisive, gawking multitude. Throughout her life people had stared at her, whispering, nudging and drawing their own false conclusions. Now they were determined to accompany her to the bitter end, having witnessed her trial and stalked the carriage returning her to gaol. Tomorrow they would be standing shoulder to shoulder, clinging to treetops and clambering onto roofs, to watch her swing.
The balladeers and poets would be out in force too with their usual moralising doggerel as the black bag was placed over her head and the noose about her neck. There would be a prolonged drum roll, a brief silence and then the local Jack Ketch would complete his dreadful work.
How had it all come to this? Had her family’s love, toil and sacrifice and a life of poverty and servitude been for this? Had the sincerest love for another, dearer than self, been for nothing, nothing but this? In the past, the family had been together and there had been security of sorts, a sense of belonging and a purpose in living however hard life was at times. There had always been an expectancy of something better. And then, one mistake – stealing a horse – which her mistress had long since forgiven.
The family was almost all gone now and she missed them terribly, especially her elder sister, dearest Sarah. She was the first to go and it had been a sobbing Nance who held her as she breathed her last. At first Sarah had seemed so calm as though resignation had gently prepared the way for her. But then she had fixed a moist, quizzical eye on Nance that seemed to penetrate to her very soul, her expression inexplicably changing to one of unbridled horror – a look that still haunted Nance. What had she seen, she for whom death held no terrors? Sweet, spiritual Sarah. Her second sight had offered many warnings to Nance. If only they had been heeded, she would surely not now be living out her final hours in the condemned cell.
As the light faded, she heard the turnkey’s footsteps as he began his evening rounds. She lit the stub of a tallow dip to read aloud the chaplain’s prayer for forgiveness, but only heard again his stern, unfeeling words.
“Oh Nance, had you but served your God with half the passion you served another, He would not have led you into temptation and abandoned you when most you needed Him.”
The spluttering flame wreathed a smoky, sulphurous aura about her as she knelt in prayer. Moonlight filtered through the barred window, the rays lengthening on the flagstones as she read aloud. Then the tallow-flame gave up the ghost and the scrawled inscriptions of former and late guests of His Majesty on the stone walls faded from view. The turnkey’s footsteps, the rattling of keys and rasping of bolts grew distant and ceased. Between the gloaming and the murk, a solemn stillness reigned as though the very world itself was in repose.
A calming, otherworldly presence now descended, bringing a certain peace and consolation. Had Nance the inner eye to see, the form of her sister, insubstantial yet pulsating with life, had appeared beside her. So many times she had tried to show Nance that life is forever continuous and that, come what may, all would be well. Now, fearing that she had only made matters worse by revealing her face, she sought to ease Nance’s torments in subtle ways by placing an incorporeal hand on her shoulder. There it remained as Nance felt its healing influence, bringing her rest, her moist eyes closed in slumber, her head pillowed on the straw-covered stones.