Friday, May 10, 2013

Black Jack by Leon Garfield (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1968)

There are many queer ways of earning a living; but none so quaint as Mrs. Gorgandy's. She was a Tyburn widow. Early and black on a Monday morning, she was up at the Tree, all in a tragical flutter, waiting to be bereaved. 

Sometimes, it's true, she was forestalled by a wife or mother; then Mrs. Gorgandy curtsied and withdrew - not wanting to come between flesh and flesh.

But, in general, she knew her business and picked on those that were alone in the world - the real villainous outcasts such as everyone was glad to see hanged - to stand wife or mother to in their last lonely movements. And even after.

It was the after that mattered. Many and many were the unloved ones weeping Mrs. Gorgandy had begged strangers to help her cut down as they ticked and tocked in the diabolical geometry of the gallows.

"Oh, sir! The good God'll reward you for your kindness to a mint-new widder! Ah! Careful with 'im, sir! For though 'e's dead as mutton, mortal flesh must be respected! Here's 'is box! Mister Ketch!" (To the hangman.) "Mister Ketch, love - a shilling if you goes past my house with the remains. Seven Blackfriars Lane, love."

Then, her sad merchandise aboard, Mrs. Gorgandy would lift up her skirts and, with a twitter of violet stockings, join her "late loved one" on his last journey but one.

His last journey of all would not yet have been fixed on; Mrs. Gorgandy had yet to settle with any surgeon who'd pay upwards of seven pounds for a corpse in good condition.

And so to the hanging of Black Jack on Monday, April fourteen, 1749.

A vast ruffian, nearly seven foot high and broad to match, who'd terrorized the lanes about Knightsbridge till a quart of rum and five peace officers had laid him low.

"Poor soul!" had sighed Mrs. Gorgandy when she'd learned of Black Jack's coming cancellation. "When there's breath in you, you ain't worth two penn'orth of cold gin; yet your mint-new widder might fairly ask fifteen pound ten for your remainders. And get it, too!"

She must have been at the Tree all night, for first comers saw her already propping up a gallows' post against the rising sun like a great black slug.

"It's me 'usband, kind sir! Wicked, shocking sinner that 'e's been! But me dooty's 'ere to see 'im off and decently bestowed. Will you 'elp a poor widder-to-be, dear sir? For 'ee's that 'eavy, 'ee'd squash me flat! Oo'll 'elp?  Oo'll 'elp?

So she went on while round about her the crowd grew, and soon her sobby voice, though never stilled, was lost in the general hub-bub of Tyburn Monday.

No comments: