The Withered Arm
by Thomas Hardy
VIII — A Water-side Hermit
date, and for several years after, there was a hangman to
almost every jail. Gertrude found, on inquiry, that the
Casterbridge official dwelt in a lonely cottage by a deep
slow river flowing under the cliff on which the prison
buildings were situate— the stream being the self-same
one, though she did not know it, which watered the
Stickleford and Holmstoke meads lower down in its course.
changed her dress, and before she had eaten or drunk—for
she could not take her ease till she had ascertained some
particulars— Gertrude pursued her way by a path along
the water-side to the cottage indicated. Passing thus the
outskirts of the jail, she discerned on the level roof
over the gateway three rectangular lines against the sky,
where the specks had been moving in her distant view; she
recognized what the erection was, and passed quickly on.
Another hundred yards brought her to the executioner's
house, which a boy pointed out It stood close to the same
stream, and was hard by a weir, the waters of which
emitted a steady roar.
stood hesitating the door opened, and an old man came
forth shading a candle with one hand. Locking the door on
the outside, he turned to a flight of wooden steps fixed
against the end of the cottage, and began to ascend them,
this being evidently the staircase to his bedroom.
Gertrude hastened forward, but by the time she reached
the foot of the ladder he was at the top. She called to
him loudly enough to be heard above the roar of the weir;
he looked down and said, 'What d'ye want here?'
to you a minute.'
candle-light, such as it was, fell upon her imploring,
pale, upturned face, and Davies (as the hangman was
called) backed down the ladder. 'I was just going to
bed,' he said; '"Early to bed and early to
rise," but I don't mind stopping a minute for such a
one as you. Come into house.' He reopened the door, and
preceded her to the room within.
implements of his daily work, which was that of a jobbing
gardener, stood in a corner, and seeing probably that she
looked rural, he said, 'If you want me to undertake
country work I can't come, for I never leave Casterbridge
for gentle nor simple—not I. My real calling is officer
of justice,' he added formally.
That's it. To-morrow!'
thought so. Well, what's the matter about that? 'Tis no
use to come here about the knot—folks do come
continually, but I tell 'em one knot is as merciful as
another if ye keep it under the ear. Is the unfortunate
man a relation; or, I should say, perhaps' (looking at
her dress) 'a person who's been in your employ?'
time is the execution?'
as usual—twelve o'clock, or as soon after as the London
mail-coach gets in. We always wait for that, in case of a
reprieve—I hope not!' she said involuntarily,
hee!—as a matter of business, so do I! But still, if
ever a young fellow deserved to be let off, this one
does; only just turned eighteen, and only present by
chance when the rick was fired. Howsomever, there's not
much risk of it, as they are obliged to make an example
of him, there having been so much destruction of property
that way lately.'
she explained, 'that I want to touch him for a charm, a
cure of an affliction, by the advice of a man who has
proved the virtue of the remedy.'
miss! Now I understand. I've had such people come in past
years. But it didn't strike me that you looked of a sort
to require blood-turning. What's the complaint? The wrong
kind for this, I'll be bound.'
She reluctantly showed the withered skin.
all a-scram!' said the hangman, examining it.
continued, with interest, 'that IS the class o' subject,
I'm bound to admit! I like the look of the place; it is
truly as suitable for the cure as any I ever saw. 'Twas a
knowing-man that sent 'ee, whoever he was.'
contrive for me all that's necessary?' she said
really have gone to the governor of the jail, and your
doctor with 'ee, and given your name and address—that's
how it used to be done, if I recollect. Still, perhaps, I
can manage it for a trifling fee.'
you! I would rather do it this way, as I should like it
to know, eh?'
well. I'll get ee' a touch of the corpse.'
it now?' she said, shuddering.
you mean; he's living yet. Just inside that little small
winder up there in the glum.' He signified the jail on
the cliff above.
of her husband and her friends. 'Yes, of course,' she
said; 'and how am I to proceed?'
He took her
to the door. 'Now, do you be waiting at the little wicket
in the wall, that you'll find up there in the lane, not
later than one o'clock. I will open it from the inside,
as I shan't come home to dinner till he's cut down.
Good-night. Be punctual; and if you don't want anybody to
know 'ee, wear a veil. Ah—once I had such a daughter as
away, and climbed the path above, to assure herself that
she would be able to find the wicket next day. Its
outline was soon visible to her—a narrow opening in the
outer wall of the prison precincts. The steep was so
great that, having reached the wicket, she stopped a
moment to breathe; and, looking back upon the water- side
cot, saw the hangman again ascending his outdoor
staircase. He entered the loft or chamber to which it
led, and in a few minutes extinguished his light.
clock struck ten, and she returned to the White Hart as
she had come.
Classical Library, This HTML edition copyright ©2001.