You know that we could do nothing, even if we would.'
'All I ask, sir,--all I want and beg, is time, to make it sure,' cried the trembling wretch, looking wildly round for sympathy. 'The King and Government can't know it's me; I'm sure they can't know it's me; or they never would bring me to this dreadful slaughterhouse. They know my name, but they don't know it's the same man. Stop my execution--for charity's sake stop my execution, gentlemen--till they can be told that I've been hangman here, nigh thirty year. Will no one go and tell them?' he implored, clenching his hands and glaring round, and round, and round again--'will no charitable person go and tell them!'
'Mr Akerman,' said a gentleman who stood by, after a moment's pause, 'since it may possibly produce in this unhappy man a better frame of mind, even at this last minute, let me assure him that he was well known to have been the hangman, when his sentence was considered.'
'--But perhaps they think on that account that the punishment's not so great,' cried the criminal, shuffling towards this speaker on his knees, and holding up his folded hands; 'whereas it's worse, it's worse a hundred times, to me than any man. Let them know that, sir. Let them know that. They've made it worse to me by giving me so much to do. Stop my execution till they know that!'
The governor beckoned with his hand, and the two men, who had supported him before, approached. He uttered a piercing cry:
'Wait! Wait. Only a moment--only one moment more! Give me a last chance of reprieve. One of us three is to go to Bloomsbury Square. Let me be the one. It may come in that time; it's sure to come. In the Lord's name let me be sent to Bloomsbury Square. Don't hang me here. It's murder.'
They took him to the anvil: but even then he could he heard above the clinking of the smiths' hammers, and the hoarse raging of the crowd, crying that he knew of Hugh's birth--that his father was living, and was a gentleman of influence and rank--that he had family secrets in his possession--that he could tell nothing unless they gave him time, but must die with them on his mind; and he continued to rave in this sort until his voice failed him, and he sank down a mere heap of clothes between the two attendants.
It was at this moment that the clock struck the first stroke of twelve, and the bell began to toll. The various officers, with the two sheriffs at their head, moved towards the door. All was ready when the last chime came upon the ear.
They told Hugh this, and asked if he had anything to say.
'To say!' he cried. 'Not I. I'm ready.--Yes,' he added, as his eye fell upon Barnaby, 'I have a word to say, too. Come hither, lad.'
There was, for the moment, something kind, and even tender, struggling in his fierce aspect, as he wrung his poor companion by the hand.
'I'll say this,' he cried, looking firmly round, 'that if I had ten lives to lose, and the loss of each would give me ten times the agony of the hardest death, I'd lay them all down--ay, I would, though you gentlemen may not believe it--to save this one. This one,' he added, wringing his hand again, 'that will be lost through me.'
'Not through you,' said the idiot, mildly. 'Don't say that. You were not to blame. You have always been very good to me.--Hugh, we shall know what makes the stars shine, NOW!'
'I took him from her in a reckless mood, and didn't think what harm would come of it,' said Hugh, laying his hand upon his head, and speaking in a lower voice. 'I ask her pardon; and his.--Look here,' he added roughly, in his former tone. 'You see this lad?'
They murmured 'Yes,' and seemed to wonder why he asked.
'That gentleman yonder--' pointing to the clergyman--'has often in the last few days spoken to me of faith, and strong belief. You see what I am--more brute than man, as I have been often told--but I had faith enough to believe, and did believe as strongly as any of you gentlemen can believe anything, that this one life would be spared.