The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins
The second book in the Tom Hawkins series, 2015
No one thought Tom Hawkins would hang. Not until the last moment.
Gentlemen don’t hang; not even ones found guilty of murder. Hawkins wasn’t much of a gentleman, that was true, but he came from a good family. A good family with good connections. The pardon would come. Sometimes the Marshal kept it hidden deep in his pocket, only to pull it out with a flourish when the procession reached the gallows. A bit of drama for the mob. A lesson, too: an act of mercy is always a lesson.
This is what Hawkins tells himself as his cart rolls slowly out of Newgate Prison.
He should have been freed hours ago. If he could only catch someone’s eye… but the Marshal is riding up at the head of the procession, followed by a band of constables armed with staves. Their boots pound hard against the cobbles as they march up Snow Hill. He can’t see them. He is a condemned man, and condemned men must ride backwards to their hanging, on carts swagged in black crêpe. He sits with his back to the carthorse, chained in iron, long legs stretched out in front of him. He sees only what he has already passed: the muddy road beneath him, the houses, the crowds of people.
The great bell of St Sepulchre tolls low and heavy as the devil’s heartbeat, summoning the town out on to the streets.
He pushes the thought away, concentrates on his breathing. This, at least, is still his to control. There is a smudge of dirt on the ankle of his left stocking. His eyes fix upon it as the cart arrives at the steps of St Sepulchre.
The horse gives a sudden lurch and he is flung forward, then back. He winces in pain as his shoulders slice against the sharp edge of his coffin. They have tied it behind him for the journey.
Four prisoners will hang today. Higgs and Oakley are footpads, betrayed by a fellow gang member. Mary Green was caught lifting a few yards of mantua silk from a shop in Spitalfields. Cherry red, the newspapers said, as if such a thing mattered. Hawkins is the only one convicted of murder. He is the one the crowds have come to see. Even with his head down, he can feel them staring. They hang out of every window; line the narrow streets five or six deep, on the brink of riot. They curse his name, tell him he will hang like a dog. The two guards flanking his cart grip their javelins hard, watching for trouble.
Sometimes the town shows pity, but not today. Not for a man who won’t confess his crime. Violence smoulders in the air, ready to catch flame. It would be safer to keep the carts moving, but there are traditions that must be observed on the road to Tyburn and this is one of them.
The church bellman appears on the steps. He is a narrow-boned, fretful man, and the hand bell is too big for him. He rings it twelve times, holding onto the handle with both hands. It is a struggle and he looks relieved when it’s over. The crowd, delighted, applauds him as if he were a comic turn at Sadler’s Wells. He frowns at them. This is meant to be a solemn moment and they are ruining it. ‘Pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners,’ he pipes, fighting to be heard over the din, ‘who are now going to their death.’
‘My thanks for that reminder,’ Hawkins mutters. The guard at his left bites back a smile.
The bellman calls upon the condemned to repent. The other three prisoners have admitted their guilt – they have an air of calm acceptance that draws approval from the crowds. Young girls throw sprigs of white flowers on to their carts. White for forgiveness. White for rebirth. Oakley is so convinced God will grant him mercy that he is going to his death dressed in his shroud; the long white smock and ruffled cap a sign to all that he is eager to leave this wicked world and ascend to heaven.
Hawkins is wearing a sky-blue velvet coat and breeches, and a white silk waistcoat trimmed with gold thread.
A plump, pretty girl trembles her way towards him as if he were a caged tiger and pushes her last sprig of flowers through the wooden rails of the cart. As he takes them from her their fingers touch. She gives a start, half-thrilled, half-terrified, and hurries back to the safety of the church steps. He sighs under his breath. Perhaps later she will tell her friends how she met the notorious Thomas Hawkins on the road to Tyburn. Will she say that the devil shone out of his bright-blue eyes? That his touch burned her skin? Will she pay a shilling for an inch of the rope that hangs him, and keep it for luck?
It began with a scream in the dark.
It was early January and I was limping my way home through Covent Garden. No longer the dead of night, not yet morning, but the secret hours before dawn, when rakes tiptoe from tight-shuttered bedrooms, and thieves slink back to the slums of St Giles. A time when good, respectable men are fast asleep, their houses barred and locked.
Long, uncounted hours earlier I had slipped out for a bowl of punch and a game of cards. I won three guineas. Such things must be celebrated. I bought a late supper for a ragged band of new friends, and a good deal more punch. The night continued. I spent the three guineas. Then I spent some more. At some point, I lost a shoe.
The first of the market traders were dragging their carts into the piazza, hunched double against the cold. They swung their lanterns into the shadows, searching for their allotted place. I saluted one or two as I passed, but didn’t linger. The weather was dismal yet again, the air damp enough to leave its trace upon my skin. Still – at least it wasn’t raining.
In fact, given that I had lost my shoe and my winnings, I was in a remarkably cheerful mood. I pulled out my silver watch and held it up to the moonlight. Almost five o’clock. Kitty would be at least half-awake by now; she preferred to rise early. We enjoyed such different hours it was a wonder we had ever met. I imagined her now, taming her wild copper curls with pins. Perhaps I would untame them again, pull out the pins and let her hair spill down over her shoulders. Or perhaps she would shout at me for staying out all night again. Yes, now I thought of it, that was more likely. Kitty had a fearsome temper. When the meek inherit the earth, she will be left quite out of pocket.
We had met the previous autumn, when I was thrown in the Marshalsea for debt. For the past three months we had been living beneath the same roof. Some of our neighbours thought it a scandal. The rest did not think of it at all, not in this disreputable part of town. I had spent the first few weeks recovering from a sickness of body and spirit that had left me weary and out of sorts. I had been tortured, beaten and betrayed in prison, witnessed murder and almost met my own death. It was the betrayal that lingered in me, an infection that would not heal. I kept old friends and acquaintances at a wary distance, wondering, wondering… Kitty was not without her faults, but I knew this much – I could trust her with my life.
Slowly, I recovered my strength. I read and worked quietly at my desk, strolled about the town in the daytime, and spent my nights with Kitty. I was content – for a while. Yes, yes, damn me for a fool, but a man of my temperament may grow tired of anything. Put me in heaven, and after a short, blissful period I would be knocking at the gates of hell, asking if anyone cared for a game of cards. Lessons that had felt so sharp and certain on my release from prison began to fade. What harm could it do, one ...