Imágenes de páginas

its way as Flaxman's Shield of Achilles; only patient genuine principle can have fashioned it under such self-denying poverty as Shaftesman's. His is the labour made rich by the poet's lory ! g o, has placed the Cup on the table, taken up the candle with his left hand, and with a small engraver's chisel is pointing out to Meg some difficulty accomplished in the position of a figure in relief, when the baby, suddenly awakened by the glare of the candle or the scintillating brilliancy of the silver, moves in Meg's arms, and striking out its little hand towards that of Shaftesman's, forces the keen edged chisel against his left wrist. It is a mere graze, yet being on a vein, the blood trickles on his wristband and trowsers freely. In an instant Meg is up, and coming in trepidation to the window-sill to fetch some plaster from a little work-box ; she catches a sight of the hangman's eager features, and so drawing a thicker curtain, the scene of love and endurance is closed upon his gaze; yet not before forth from it has been preached . sermon, to touch the latent principle of good within his eart! As he wearily moves away, Thugg sees the baker sitting behind his counter, amidst a mighty pile of loaves on either side, and, with ears intent upon catching up any little stray word that may, spritelike, come through the key-hole of the neighbouring room, is further employed in fiercely copying out a tremendous bill from a little scrawled book before him. Yes, Meg! all because thy little white hand won't pay the price. Now hunger is that sort of thing that, however abstract the proposition may appear—and these little metaphysical points tickle one's ingenuity sometimes—it has drawn forth mercy from a stone; but the one operated upon is a coarse hard flint, from which even Aaron's rod would bring no welling spring. So when Thugg enters and asks for a morsel of bread, the mouldiest crust, the driest thing, the flint is hard as brass! He might snatch and run; but then, of all men on the earth a hangman has a horror of a jail! Just as with famished stricken face Thugg turns away, to curse in bitterness the good that has just touched his soul, Shaftesman comes forth from the parlour in a better coat, poor threadbare thing as it is, his hat on, and what is evidently the Cup, enveloped in the baize cloth of the Pembroke table. He sees the wretch's look, his pallid face, his shrunken chest; and it takes but little to teach such signs unto the merciful in heart—in a moment his hand is on a loaf.

“I can borrow; I have friends, though poor; but he is one, God help him, that has asked, I know, in vain. I wouldn't ask you for myself, but take this;” and as he speaks he draws from his rusty handkerchief a little golden pin, Meg's love token, and laysit down as a pledge for the loaf, which in an instant is safe in Thugg's grasp; and the baker, gloating over his prize—for he has long coveted it to stick in his Sunday ruffled shirt—sees not that the two men have left the shop. “What's your trade, friend?” asked Shaftesman, as with pleasure he sees the hangman's greedy haste to break and eat the bread. “Why—why—why,” hesitates. Thugg; “well! a-going down 'un, sir, and must take on another, sir. But God bless you, sir—I feel I'se a better man this night, by this very bread. God bless and thankye, sir.” To escape further interrogation he hurries away, and as the night airnow blows refreshingly from the open country, he leaves the dirty outskirts of the town, and gains the quiet fields and shadowing hedge-rows; and there, unconscious of the passing time— there, in the primal stillness of life's sleep, that coarse, hard, untaught outcast, whom society's crimes had learnt to eat the bread of blood, and rehsh it as the good man his homest crust, thinks over the existence gone and of the time to come; believes at last that Good has an angel's nature; garners up in his solitary heart that man's endurance, woman's gentleness and purity unto him, are not mere things for tap-room jest or felon's sneer; and so resolves, that as evil has renounced him and left him breadless, he'll seek the light of Good—these thoughts of course in his own rough fashion, though offspring of the same eternal truth that connates the soul of all men into one! He is roused from this sort of dream at last by an advancing footstep. Coming from the town at a rapid pace, made slow, however, by constantly looking rearward, is a man, a well-dressed, middle-aged man; and, as he nears him, the hangman rises and asks for charity. Charity it might be that the hangman asks for life and limb ; so abject, so stricken, ghastly does the man stand or rather crouch before him. Never in his whole vocation of blood has Thugg seen such a human countenance! He falters, hesitates, is speechless, tries to pass and yet seems rooted to the spot, till Thugg reiterates his question, and then he drags—not unbuttons—his coat asunder with the hand of a palsied man, and

diving it into his pocket, brings forth a handful of coin, which,
without looking at, he thrusts into Thugg's hand and then hurries
on, still turning round at every step, till the bending pathway.
hides him from the hangman's sight. - .
Odd and strange | There are two sovereigns, some silver and
halfpence, and his first act, as his first impulse, is to hurry back
to the town and seek for that poor home. True it is late ; but
Shaftesman has told Meg it will be so before he returns. As he
passes over a bridge, Thugg sees the artisan before him in con-
versation with another man. He loiterstill they part; then hastily
wrapping a sovereign and some silver in a piece of rag he tears off
the bosom of his ragged shirt, he overtakes Shaftesman and thrusts
the money into his hand, without more words than some about
honesty, and with a “God bless you, sir,” that shows the new-
born heart. He's gone and out of sight, before Shaftesman can
look upon the gift. * - * * * *
Bread in that home this night! Hopeful words of the glory of
the Cup of Mercy. * * * * *
But on the morning air one cry is heard from street to street.
“Murder 1 foul murder!—Crutch the silversmith found weltering
in his blood l’’ **...* * * *
Suspicion pointed in one direction to Falter, Crutch's partner;
circumstantial evidence of the minutest kind criminates Shaftes-
man. He, the struggling man of genius: he, whose labours
pirating brain-lackers watch with greedy curiosity; he, who
through poverty and want has been the people's friend, and the
watching spirit of their rights. They will not believe; they will
not harken ; each man doubting innocence in Shaftesman doubts
it in himself; and yet there are damning proofs that some believe:
—the marked money, the improbable tale of its gift by an outcast:
vagabond, the blood upon the wristband and trowsers, the child
sleeping as verified by the landlord, the visit to Crutch's house
that night for money—all condemn him to the few Pharisees,
though not to the Samaritans in the market-place; and the little,
drooping, stricken wife stands before God, as woman's mission is,
as woman's angel-nature should do, to be witness for the truth—
ay, martyr, if need be, for man.
In prison all the winter, till this spring. Now the trial, now
the eager evidence of Falter and the landlord. Grand jurymen
and magistrates say the crime is dreadful, and that there must be
one last and terrible example: so the “putters down" of crushed

[ocr errors]

humanity, say, “Guilty,” and the terrible black cap comes forth from its seraphic innocence and sleep, to crown the gorgon head of Death's last judgment by the law. A month passes swiftly by ; in spite of one universal petitions from the people, there lies a dissent from the Pharisees : Shaftesman is, therefore: to die on the morrow ! 'Tis a calm soft April evening, a very Heaven's testimony against the sacrificial morrow, when there comes up to a turnpike leading into the town, a stout fresh-looking fellow, a little travel-worn, but with a span-new coat, and a bright hat, and a flowered waistcoat, which has a sort of odd little lump visible from under it, and a precious big nosegay in his buttonhole, all gilliflowers and early roses. Well, just as he's up to the turnpike, a mail cart going countrywards stops, and the posteries out, “Hollo Ben!-rum news this here ! The Bill o' Abolition of Death by Law has passed the Lords, and has got the Queen's blissid sig'in’ture, and yet Shaftesman's to be hanged to-morrow; 'cause as I know a riglar tip-top tuck-upper's come all the way from Lua'un by this here mail train to do the last job handsomely; for somehow or another the feller as used to do the bisnis ain't to be found.” “Well, there, well there,” says the pikeman, “the inconsis-tin-cy o' them here men in Parl'ment be shocking ! and as for him, I'd rather 'em say my secu-ri—ty o' the pike money war na good, as to say the dear cree tur's guilty. For as to the money, why the luf " . “Five minnits over time, Ben. Good night ! The Lord o' mercy on us! ” and the post drives on. Good God! the Cup—that money. The travel-worn man soon knows all, and then, oh yes, on, on with swifter feet ; on to save the innocent, and cheat Blood Law of its last unjust meal! The common heart is forth abroad, full of wonderment, full of speculation. Groups of anxious men in every street: a crowd in the nearer one to which the gate-keeper has directed Thugg, for it is he. He forces his way through its heaving motion, just as: one very pale-worn, sorrow-stricken man is bearing in his arms into a house, round which the eager gazers press and throng, a little young frail creature of a woman, death-like and insensible, a very trodden lily crushed before the blossom's come to flowers And just behind, one very stout old gentleman, hugging in his arms, as if in its defence he'd fight the battles of a score of

British Lions, a little laughing baby, whilst his countenance is an index expressing grief and scorn and anger, in a way not very common to little old comfortable gentlemen. Well, Thugg makes no hesitation to go into the house, and close the door; and whilst they are laying the little drooping creature on some chairs, and fetching a pillow for her head, he looks round, and there upon a table, thick covered with a black cloth, is what he knows to be The Cup of Mercy; and this—no one heeding for the minute—he uncovers, and on each handle—formed by an angelface that seems to stoop and whisper mercy to some crushed Sorrow of the earth— he places a little wondrous cinderella of a shoe, blue as the summer sky, ay, fair enough for those little tiny waxen feet, to print withal, with little doubting steps, earth's freshest flowers. The hangman's hand has made them ; and who shall place in parallel these with the pollution of the Gibbet and the Noose! By labour of gratitude for that one poor loaf, is thy hand washed pure of blood, 0 hangman' as was apostolic body in the sacred Jordan. “Hush! stop! what are you doing? who are you?” says the little old gentleman, as he breathlessly seizes Thugg's arm. “What's proper, sir, and where these little shoes shall stand. Just your ear a minute. I'm the man that gave Shaftesman the money, and he's innocent.” “I knew it—I knew it—I said it; as my name's John Oakfist, and as I am a timber merchant, I said it,” says the old gentleman, hugging the baby and capering about, and performing in one minute a clown's list of antics; but, more serious grown, he and others crowd round Thugg, to listen with anxious hope-joyed features. And the hangman describes the man that gave the money. “Falter,” they whisper one and all ; and 0 what joy to kneel round Meg, and revive her with the good words of truth! and Thugg, as he kisses the happy baby and places it in her arms, tells how blessed was the loaf that Shaftesman gave. But there 's more serious work to do ; Marshall, and Oakfist, and Thugg are off directly to the mayor's ; and though the secret is tried to be kept, the crowd gather a deal by interpretationary faces; so good news gets noised from street to street, till when, after the mayor and sheriff (who is in the town) and magistrates' hasty counsel, a body of police is sent to arrest Falter, it's found the report has warned him. He's discovered disguising himself for the purpose of effecting an escape, and with an enormous sum of money in gold and bills upon his person,

« AnteriorContinuar »