Authors: Joanna Chambers
With thanks to my lovely critique partner, Carolyn Crane, for her enthusiasm and good advice on this, and other stories, and to Sunita (a.k.a. Vacuousminx) for beta-reading and offering typically insightful comments.
8th September 1820, Stirling, Scotland
The crowd for the executions of John Baird and Andrew Hardie had grown steadily all morning. When David had arrived to take up his place, he’d had room enough to stretch his arms wide. Now he was hemmed in on all sides, and by every kind of person—men, women and children, low- and high-born.
There were hundreds of supporters for the two men about to be hanged and beheaded, but there were plenty of people here for the sheer spectacle too. The general mood was that of any execution—a gently seething combination of morbid glee and bloodlust that could easily spill into violence but that, for now, had a holiday feel. All around, people pushed and shoved, seeking out the best views and shouting for their friends. Hawkers announced their wares in raucous voices as they elbowed their way through the throng, peddling hot pease and beans, sawster, oranges and gingerbread. The mingled sweet and savoury scents combined with the smell of too-close, unwashed bodies. David swallowed back a sudden urge to retch and wished he’d thought to bring a nip of whisky with him.
The redcoats were out in force—soldiers from the 13
Foot. They held back the rowdy rabble gathered on either side of Broad Street; two thin lines of scarlet coats, silver bayonets bristling. Behind them, a swarm of spectators jostled and heaved.
A sharp elbow caught David in the ribs, making him grunt. His aggressor was a woman in a dirty apron and cap who smelled strongly of drink. Evidently she wanted to be closer to the front, the better to see the brutal pageantry of it all. Once past David, she ploughed through a group of young men. They cursed her roundly, but she ignored them and blundered on.
David didn’t grudge the woman her view. He hated executions. He was here because it was the only thing left that he could do for James and Andrew. He had tried his best to save them, but their trial had been a foregone conclusion. Flushed out into the open like hunted foxes, Hardie and Baird had sealed their fates months before, when they marched on Carron to take up arms and demand a say in who governed them. Little did they know that some of their number—the most committed and eager for the fight—were, in fact, hunting hounds sent by Whitehall.
They never had a chance.
David shifted his feet, weary in body and soul. The last day and a half had been interminable. First the journey from Edinburgh, then the long hours at the inn, with nothing but his own thoughts for company. He’d come into town too early this morning, unsure how heavy the crowds would be. Already he’d been waiting more than two hours, stranded in a sea of people, some who looked as sick at heart as himself and others who might as well have been at the circus.
A sudden rumble at the top of the street caused the spectators to turn their heads as one.
“It’s the procession!” a young woman ahead of David informed her neighbour excitedly. She wore a serving girl’s apron and her fair curls peeped out from under her cap. She looked as wholesome as new-baked bread, and David couldn’t imagine why she was here, rising up on her toes and craning her neck for a better look.
At first all David could see was a company of mounted dragoons, picking their way slowly down the hill from the castle, but as they drew nearer, he could just about make out the shape of a horse-drawn hurdle in their midst, carrying the condemned men.
It was the music, though, that reached him first, a full minute before the hurdle passed. A hymn. One his mother used to sing as she worked in the farm kitchen at home,
O God, Our Help in Ages Past.
The hymn moved with the procession as it progressed down the hill, each new segment of the crowd taking it up, bearing the prisoners along on uneven waves of song.
The hymn had an extraordinary effect. The hawkers’ cries ceased and the excited spectators settled, until the only sounds breaking the silence were the clatter of the horses’ hooves, the dragging rattle of the prisoners’ hurdle on the cobblestones and this solemn choir of voices.
David sang too, his tenor voice a little hoarse, the familiar words dredged up from some long-forgotten corner of his memory.
Time, like an ever rolling stream
Bears all who breathe away,
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
As the procession passed David, he caught a fleeting glimpse of the prisoners through a small gap between the mounted redcoats. They sat side by side on the hurdle, the headsman opposite them, a still, hooded figure, all in black.
Behind the hurdle and its military escort walked the local dignitaries. The magistrates and Sheriff MacDonald himself, carrying his stave of office. As they moved onward, the calming effect of the hymn seemed to dissipate, and a few supporters of the condemned men bayed insults.
Once the procession had passed David, there was little to see for a while. The hurdle came to a halt outside the courthouse but there were so many redcoats bustling around that David saw nothing of the prisoners getting out. A woman in front of him reported that they had gone inside.
Long minutes passed, and the crowd grew impatient as it waited, regaining some of its dangerous mood. A few more spectators shoved past David to get closer to the scaffold for the main event, and David found himself being dragged along in their wake, ending up beside a group of men who looked as though they’d been drinking for some time.
They were dressed in worn, shabby clothes, and each carried a flagon of some ale or spirit. They made lewd jokes and deliberately jostled their neighbours, egging each other on. David tried to move away from them, but there were people at his back and on his right and left, all hard up against him. There was nowhere to go, so instead he averted his eyes and tried to ignore them.
A murmur of excitement went up as the courthouse doors opened again. From his new vantage point, David saw several figures emerge, and this time he was able to pick out the condemned men in their black clothes, their hands bound behind their backs. They looked amazingly calm as they walked over to the scaffold and began to mount the steps.
At this first sign of what was to come, the crowd rippled with expectation. A few cries went up.
Beside David, the drunken men laughed over a filthy story one was telling about the old whore he’d tupped the night before.
Once the prisoners were on the scaffold, James Baird stepped forward to address the crowd. Although Baird’s voice rang out, David could only hear snatches of his words.
“—die an ignominious death by unjust laws—”
A few exclamations of agreement at this.
“—be the means of our afflicted countrymen’s speedy redemption—”
The men beside David kept talking, oblivious. Angry, he shot them a disapproving glance, and one of them noticed, a burly man with a pockmarked face. He gave David a long, ugly look and elbowed his neighbour to draw his attention. The second man listened to what the first had to say, his bleary, hostile gaze fixed on David.
David turned away, tamping down the sudden flare of rage that threatened to overcome the fear squatting in his gut. An urge to strike out—to just throw himself into a brawl he could never ever win—assailed him. He had to bite the inside of his cheek and tighten his fists till he thought his knuckles would split to get control of himself. He was here for one reason only: to witness James’s and Andrew’s deaths. To show them they would be remembered.
If Jeffrey knew David was here, he’d have a fit. He’d advised the younger man against taking the radicals’ case at all, pointing out that it was one thing for Jeffrey to defend men who had taken up arms against the government, it was quite another for David Lauriston—the son of a tenant farmer from Fife with scarce four years as an advocate to his name—to join him. But David had taken the case anyway, realising his ambition to work with the great man. And it had brought him here today.
It was Hardie’s turn to speak now, and he stepped forward. The first part of what he said was drowned out, but David heard his final words.
“—in a few minutes, our blood shall be shed on this scaffold,” Hardie cried, “our heads severed from our bodies for no other sin than seeking the legitimate rights of our ill-used and downtrodden countrymen—”
Shouts of encouragement from the crowd echoed all around at his words. The sheriff surged forward to place a restraining hand on Hardie’s arm.
“Stop this violent and improper language, Mr. Hardie!” he demanded. He was almost purple with anger. “You promised not to inflame the crowd!”
The spectators protested loudly at this silencing of the prisoner.
“Let him speak!” someone cried.
Hardie shrugged MacDonald’s hand off, declaring angrily, “We said what we intended to say, whether you granted us liberty to do so or not.”
A loud cheer greeted this, and it seemed to draw Hardie’s attention to the throng of spectators. He looked about himself. Out at the crowd, then up at the gibbet above his head. At the block beside him, readied for his own beheading, then out at the crowd again. At the people grouped in the square to witness his death, all hemmed in by countless redcoats. Everywhere there was the scarlet of dress uniforms, the glint of weapons, the quiver of nervous horseflesh. David watched as the condemned man took it all in, and saw the potential of what might happen here today.
Hardie held up his hand and spoke one last time. “Do not drink any toasts to us tonight, friends.” His voice rang out clearly, but his tone was sombre as he eyed the soldiers. “Leave the public houses behind. Go to your homes. Attend to your bibles this night.” Beside him, James Baird nodded his agreement.
The crowd murmured unhappily, and the sheriff stepped forward again, drawing the two men into a final discussion, this time speaking too low to be heard. At the end of it, one of the redcoats was summoned forward. He took out a knife from his belt and cut the bonds that held the condemned men’s wrists.
They shook off the ropes then, giving each other one last look before coming together in a tight embrace, Baird resting his forehead against Hardie’s shoulder for one long moment before they parted.
“Look at them,” one of the men beside David jeered. “They’re like a pair o’ women.”
David bit his cheek till he tasted blood to stop himself from turning on the man. A woman in front of him was less controlled. She turned and hissed that they were a bunch of ignorant bastards. They told her to shut her face with the sort of good humour that could turn vicious in the blink of an eye. David didn’t even look at them—he fixed his attention where it needed to be. On the scaffold.
The prisoners stood back to back, two proud, upright figures, while the hangman stepped forward to settle the nooses about their necks and black hoods over their heads. Hardie held a white handkerchief in his left hand. The hangman’s signal.
For a few moments they remained thus, and the crowd seemed to hold its collective breath. Even the drunks were silent now. The condemned men groped for each other’s hands, linking their fingers together in a final gesture of solidarity. The handkerchief dropped.
So did the men.
David kept his gaze on their linked hands. In that first instant it seemed to him that their fingers tightened. Gradually though, the connection loosened. Their kicking legs stilled, bodies growing limp, hands parting. Souls leaving. He knew, somehow, the precise moment at which they ceased to inhabit their bodies. And then they merely hung there, dead. Two carcasses.
A woman wailed.
“Shame!” someone else cried wildly and the cry was taken up by the crowd.
Shame! Shame! Murder!
The cries went on and on, and the redcoats around the square began to look twitchy, their weapons quivering with readiness. The men and women that David stood among hung on the cusp of transforming into a mob—all it would take, David thought, was one rash gesture, one thrown stone, and this could be another Peterloo.
Diversion came in the form of two large men stepping forward to cut down the bodies. Gradually, the cries began to die away as the crowd strained forward, waiting for the next stage in the proceedings. The headsman.
They settled Hardie’s body on the block first, and the headsman stepped forward. He looked surprisingly small, slight even. A spectator had claimed earlier that this was the same man who’d beheaded the body of James Wilson, another of the radicals, a week earlier. A medical student, the spectator had claimed, skilled in dissection.
When the headsman lifted the axe, an agonised cry from someone in the crowd fractured the silence. Perhaps it put him off. Or perhaps it was inexperience—it wasn’t as though there was much call for headsmen these days, after all. Whatever the case, it took him three blows to remove Hardie’s head and two for Baird’s. After each operation, he held up the head, gore dripping gruesomely from the neck, and declared, “This is the head of a traitor!” And each time, the spectators howled, like a great beast bellowing, half in pain, half in protest.