“A pardon! a pardon!” And so it was.
The crowd opened out to let the man through; and immediately he was at the gallows, and handing the paper to the sheriff. A roar was going up now on all sides; but as in dumb play I could see that Mr. How was speaking to the priests who still stood as before. Mr. Whitbread shook his head in answer and so did the others. Then I saw Mr. How make a sign; the hangman came forward again (for he had stepped back just now); and the roar died suddenly to silence.
Then I understood that the pardon was offered only on conditions which these men could not accept—and indeed they turned out afterwards to be that they should confess their guilt—and my anger at that bitter mockery swelled up so that I could scarcely hold myself in. But I did so.
Then the hangman climbed once more into the cart, and, one by one with each, he adjusted the rope, and then pulled down the caps over their faces, beginning with Father Whitbread and ending with Father Fenwick. Then he got down from the cart again; and the murmur rose once more to a roar.
I kept my eyes fixed upon the five, caring for nothing else; and even in that horrible instant my lips moved in the De Profundis for their souls’ easy passage. Then I saw old Father Harcourt suddenly stagger, and then the rest staggered; and I saw that the cart was being pulled away. And then all five of them were in the air together, beginning to twist to and fro; and I shut my eyes, for I could bear no more.
It was not till we were coming down St. Martin’s Lane on the way to Whitehall, that my thoughts ran clear again, and I could think upon the designs I had formed. Until then, it seemed to me that I rode as in a dream, seeing my thoughts before me, but having no power to look within or consider myself. One thing too moved before me whenever I closed my eyes; and that was the slow twisting frieze of the five figures against the blue sky.
* * * * *
I spoke suddenly to James as we went.
“You will leave me,” I said, “at the Whitehall gate; and go back to my lodgings. Procure a pair of good horses at the Covent Garden inn; and say we will leave them at any place they name on the Dover Road.”
He answered that he would do so, and it was the first word he had spoken since we had left Tyburn. At the palace-doors I found no difficulty in admittance, for it was the hour for changing guard, and a lieutenant that was known to me let me in at once; so I went straight in and across the court, just as I was, in my dusty clothes and boots, carrying nothing but my riding-whip. My mind now seethed with bitter thoughts and words, now fell into a stupor, and I rehearsed nothing of what I should say to His Majesty, except that I was done with his service and was then going to France for a little, unless it pleased him to have me arrested and hanged too for nothing. Then I would give him back his papers and begone.