The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

I was sorry for his mother, who was a fool but punished for it with unusual severity; she had not spoiled Jimmy more than countless mothers spoil boys who turn out to be sources of pride. Jimmy had been exposed to all the supposed benefits of a democratic state; he had the best schooling that could be managed for as long as he cared to take it — which was no longer than the law demanded; his childhood had been embowered in a complexity of protective laws, and his needs had been guaranteed by Mackenzie King’s Baby Bonus. But Jimmy was a foul-mouthed crook who had burned an old woman to death, and never, in all the months I knew him, expressed one single word of regret.

He was proud of being a condemned man. While awaiting trial he acquired from somewhere a jail vocabulary. Within a day of his imprisonment he would greet the trusty who brought him his food with “Hiya, shit-heel!” that being the term the hardened prisoners used for those who cooperated with the warden. After his trial, when the chaplain tried to talk to him he was derisive, shouting, “Listen, I’m gonna piss when I can’t whistle, and that’s all there is to it, so don’t give me none of your shit.” He regarded me with some favour, for I qualified as a supporting player in his personal drama; I was his “mouthpiece.” He wanted me to arrange for him to sell his story to a newspaper, but I would have nothing to do with that. I saw Jimmy at least twice a week while he was waiting for execution, and I never heard a word from him that did not make me think the world would be better off without him. None of his former friends tried to see him, and when his mother visited him he was sullen and abusive.

When the time for his hanging came, I spent a dismal night with the sheriff and the chaplain in the office of the warden of the jail. None of them had ever managed a hanging, and they were nervous and haggled about details, such as whether a flag should be flown to show that justice had been done upon Jimmy; it was a foolish question, for a flag would have to be flown at seven o’clock anyway, and that was the official hour for Jmmy’s execution; in fact he was to be hanged at six, before the other prisoners were awakened. Whether they were sleeping or not I do not know, but certainly there was none of that outcry or beating on cellbars which is such a feature of romantic drama on this subject. The hangman was busy about concerns of his own. I had seen him; a short, stout, unremarkable man who looked like a carpenter dressed for a funeral, which I suppose is what he was. The chaplain went to Jimmy and soon returned. The doctor came at five, and with him two or three newspaper reporters. In all, there were about a dozen of us at last, of whom only the hangman had ever been present at such an affair before.

As we waited, the misery which had been palpable in the small office became almost stifling, and I went out with one of the reporters to walk in the corridor. As six o’clock drew near we moved into the execution chamber, a room like an elevator shaft, though larger, and stuffy from long disuse. There was a platform about nine feet high of unpainted new wood, and under it hung some curtains of unbleached cotton that were crumpled and looked as if they had been used before and travelled far; above the platform, from the roof, was suspended a heavily braced steel beam, painted the usual dirty red, and from this hung the rope, with its foot-long knot which would, if all was well, dislocate Jimmy’s cervical vertebrae and break his spinal cord. To my surprise, it was almost white; I do not know what I expected, but certainly not a white rope. The hangman in his tight black suit was bustling about trying the lever that worked the trap. Nobody spoke. When everything was to his liking, the hangman nodded, and two warders brought Jimmy in.

He had been given something by the doctor beforehand, and needed help as he walked. I had seen him the day before, in his cell where the lights always burned and where he had spent so many days without a belt, or braces, or even laces in his shoes — deprivations which seemed to rob him of full humanity, so that he appeared to be ill or insane. Now his surly look was gone, and he had to be pushed up the ladder that led to the platform. The hangman, whom he never saw, manoeuvred Jimmy gently to the right spot, then put the noose over his head and adjusted it with great care — in other circumstances one might say with loving care. Then he slid down the ladder — literally, for he put his feet on the outsides of the supports and slipped down it like a fireman — and immediately pulled the lever. Jimmy dropped out of sight behind the curtains, with a loud thump, as the cord stretched tight.

The silence, which had been so thick before, was now broken as Jimmy swung to and fro and the rope banged against the sides of the trap. Worse than that, we heard gurgling and gaggling, and the curtains bulged and stirred as Jimmy swung within them. The hanging, as is sometimes the case, had not gone well, and Jimmy was fighting for life.

The doctor had told us that unconsciousness was immediate, but that the cessation of Jimmy’s heartbeat might take from three to five minutes. If Jimmy were unconscious, why am I sure that I heard him cry out — curses, of course, for these had always been Jimmy’s eloquence? But I did hear him, and so did the others, and one of the reporters was violently sick. We looked at one another in terror. What was to be done? The hangman knew. He darted inside the curtains, and beneath them we saw a great shuffling of feet, and soon the violent swinging stopped, and the sighs and murmurings were still. The hangman came out again, flustered and angry, and mopped his brow. None of us met his eye. When five minutes had passed the doctor, not liking his work, went inside the curtains with his stethoscope ready, came out again almost at once, and nodded to the sheriff. And so it was over.

Not quite over for me. I had promised Jimmy’s mother that I would see him before he was buried, and I did. He was laid on a table in a neighbouring room, and I looked him right in the face, which took some resolution in the doing. But I noticed also a damp stain on the front of his prison trousers, and looked enquiringly at the doctor.

“An emission of semen.” he said; “they say it always happens. I don’t know.”

So that was what Jimmy meant when he said he’d piss when he couldn’t whistle. Where could he have picked up such a jaunty, ugly, grotesque idea of death by hanging? But that was Jimmy; he had a flair for whatever was brutal and macabre and such knowledge sought him out because he was eager for it.

I had seen a hanging. Worse things happen in wars and in great catastrophes, but they are not directly planned and ordered. This had been the will of Jimmy’s fellow-countrymen, as expressed through the legal machinery devised to deal with such people as he. But it was unquestionably a squalid business, an evil deed, and we had all of us, from the hangman down to the reporters, been drawn into it and fouled by it. If Jimmy had to be got rid of — and I fully believe that was all that could have been done with such a man, unless he were to be kept as a caged, expensive nuisance for another fifty years — why did it have to be like this? I do not speak of hanging alone; the executioner’s sword, the guillotine, the electric chair are all dreadful and involve the public through its legal surrogates in a revolting act. The Greeks seem to have known a better way than these.

Jimmy’s evil had infected us all — had indeed spread far beyond his prison until something of it touched everybody in his country. The law had been tainted by evil, though its great import was for good, or at least for order and just dealing. But it would be absurd to attribute so much power to Jimmy, who was no more than a fool whose folly had become the conduit by which evil had poured into so many lives. When I visited Jimmy in prison I had sometimes seen on his face a look I knew, the look I had seen on the face of Bill Unsworth as he squatted obscenely over a pile of photographs. It was the look of one who has laid himself open to a force that is inimical to man, and whose power to loose that force upon the world is limited only by his imagination, his opportunities, and his daring. And it seemed to me then that it was with such people I had cast my lot, for I was devoting my best abilities to their defence.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson