Bosoms seared and foul and sick with uncleanliness. Hearts bound in the fetters of crime. Hot passions broken loose. Discord rampant. Some that smote the breast nightly in the anguish of remorse. Some that knew not where to hide from the eye of conscience the secret sin that corroded the soul.
Lonely, utterly lonely, in this dense throng were some that shuddered and laughed by turns.
There were blameless men and women, too, drawn by curiosity and by another and stronger magnet that they knew of. How would the condemned meet their end? Would it be with craven timidity or with the intrepidity of heroes, or again with the insensibility of brutes? Death was at hand—the inexorable, the all-powerful. How could mortal man encounter it face to face? This was the great problem then; it is the great problem now.
Two men were to be executed at eight that morning. Again and again the people turned to look at the clock. It hung by the side of the dial in the cupola of the old Town Hall. How slowly moved its tardy figures! God forgive them, there were those in that crowd who would have helped forward, if they could, its passionless pulse. And a few minutes more or fewer in this world or the next, of what account were they in the great audit of men who were doomed to die?
* * * * *
In a room of the guard-house the condemned sat together. They had been brought from the castle in the night.
“We shall fight our last battle to-day,” said Ralph. “The enemy will take our camp, but, God willing, we shall have the victory. Never lower the flag. Cheer up! Keep a brave heart! A few swift minutes more, and all will be well!”
Sim was crouching at a fire, wringing his lean hands or clutching his long gray hair.
“Ralph, it shall never be! God will never see it done!”
“Put away the thought,” replied Ralph. “God has brought us here.”
Sim jumped to his feet and cried, “Then I will never witness it— never!”
Ralph put his hand gently but firmly on Sim’s arm and drew him back to his seat.
The sound of singing came from without, mingled with laughter and jeers.
“Hark!” cried Sim, “hearken to them again; nay, hark!”
Sim put his head aside and listened. Then, leaping up, he shouted yet more wildly than before, “No, no! never, never!”
Ralph took him once more by the arm, and the poor worn creature sank into his seat with a low wail.
* * * * *
There was commotion in the corridors and chief chamber of the guard-house.
“Where is the sheriff?” was the question asked on every hand.
Willy Ray was there, and had been for hours closeted with the sheriff’s assistant.
“Here is the confession duly signed,” he said for the fiftieth time, as he walked nervously to and fro.
“No use, none. Without the King’s pardon or reprieve, the thing must be done.”