Read an Extract
tall man in the frieze coat sat cross-legged on the hard bench,
put his elbows on his knees, his chin on his clasped hands
and thought. It required some concentration to ignore the
shackles on his legs, the cold that seeped out of the damp
walls, the rustles and squeaking in the rotten straw that
covered the floor and the constant noise that echoed through
the long dark corridors.
A few cells away a man was screaming an incoherent flood
of obscenities that seemed to have gone on for hours. More
distantly someone was dragging a stick across the bars of
one of the great rooms, a monotonous music which fretted at
the nerves. A boy was sobbing somewhere close. Footsteps on
the flags outside and the clank and jingle of keys heralded
the passing of a pair of turnkeys.
Long ago his father had said he was born to be hanged. At
the time he had laughed: nothing had seemed more improbable.
Now the words spoken in anger had been proven right: in eight
days he would step outside Newgate gaol to the gallows platform
and the hangman’s noose.
One small mercy was that they had put him in a cell by himself,
not thrown him into one of the common yards where pickpockets
and murderers, petty thieves and rapists crowded together,
sleeping in great filthy chambers as best they might, fighting
amongst themselves and preying on the weakest amongst them
if they could.
Apparently his notoriety as Black Jack Standon was worth
enough in tips to the turnkeys for them to keep him apart
where he could be better shown off to the languid gentlemen
and over-excited ladies who found an afternoon’s slumming
a stimulating entertainment. The sight of an infamous highwayman
who had made the Oxford road through Hertfordshire his hunting
ground was the climax of the visit to one of London’s
most feared prisons.
He had hurled his bowl at the group who had clustered around
the narrow barred opening an hour or two ago and smiled grimly
at the shrieks and curses when the foul liquid which passed
as stew splattered the fine clothes on the other side of the
grill. He doubted they’d feed him again today after
that. It was no loss, he seemed to have passed beyond hunger
after the trial - if such it could be called.
Footsteps outside again, slowing. He raised his dark head
and regarded the door through narrowed eyes. There was nothing
left to throw except the coarse pottery mug and he was not
prepared to give up water as easily as food.
The slide over the grill rasped back and he squinted in
the beam from a lantern directed through the gap. It was probably
daylight outside, all that filtered down into his cell was
a dirty smudge of light which hardly had the strength to reflect
off the rivulets of water on the walls.
They did not sound like Society sensation seekers. One man
talking. No, two, low voiced and apparently arguing. Suddenly
moved to real anger at being exhibited like a caged animal
at a fair he swung his legs off the bench and took a stride
towards the door before the shackles jerked him to a standstill.The
grill shutter slammed closed. All he heard was “She’ll
an awkward shuffle the man they called Black Jack got back
to his bench and hoisted his feet up again away from the foul
straw and the rats who lived in it. Better get used to
being stared at, he told himself grimly. In eight days
he would walk out of here to die in front of a vast crowd.
They expected the condemned to “die game”, defiant
in their best clothes, a joke on their lips for the onlookers.
They would have to do without the fine clothes, all he had
was the ill-fitting ones he was wearing and not a penny-piece
in his pockets to buy anything else.
So, he continued his inner dialogue. Better get used
to the idea and think up something witty to say. Was
it too late to save himself? Yes, days too late. If he had
sent when they first took him the message might have reached
Northumberland, help might have come. Or might not.
He had made this particular bed. Pride had kept him away
for six years, pride was damn well going to have to get him
through to the end. Meanwhile pride and a hard bench made
for little sleep. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift.
At least it wasn’t raining, at least there was no mud
and nobody was going to try and kill him for eight days. That
was an improvement on the night before Waterloo. ‘Count
your blessings,’ his old nurse was wont to say. The
bitter twist of his mouth relaxed a little and he began to