Since Laws were made for ev'ry Degree,
To curb Vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han't better Company,
Upon Tyburn Tree!
But Gold from Law can take out the Sting;
And if rich Men like us were to swing,
'Twou'd thin the Land, such Numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree!
– James Gay, The Beggar's Opera
English was not Madame Graveau's first language. "I read your pamphlets hungry – no, thirsty. Thirsty, like you with my gin!" She winked, having practiced it. I think she meant to be coquettish. "I drink them up, hmn?" She pursed her lips and let out what was probably a purr. "Am I your best customer?" She made to nudge my arm, but it was a moving target and her elbow got me right in the temple. The pursed lips formed an O and her eyebrows leapt up and the purr became a gasp... it was all rather exhausting. I gestured that no harm had been done.
Mme. Graveau's tavern had settled into a low murmur. It was the early evening after a hanging day. For hours before and after the mid-day event, the excited, intoxicated noise bulged the walls and windows, threatening to burst. Now, the structure sighed with relief. Mme. Graveau's was, happily for Mme. Graveau, located just off Tyburn Square, four times a year the site of a wondrous, absurd carnival that erupted around London's gallows. All the taverns within a furlong's radius of Tyburn were settling into a low murmur. They all smelled like Mme. Graveau's did also, you can be sure: sweat and breath, beer-soaked wood, spent energy.
"Your best customer," she emphasized. It was true, Mme. Graveau ate up – drank up – my pamphlets describing the last hours of the lives of condemned criminals. Sometimes, it was difficult to imagine. A woman who owned a tavern would be literate enough, in the language of her customers, to read my work. But there was something surprising about Mme. Graveau, in particular, reading. She seemed too... lumpy.
My best customer, perhaps, but there were many to choose. High born, low born, and in-between gobbled up each Account of the Behaviour, Confession and Dying Words of the Malefactor [Malefactor], Executed at Tyburn on... (or such) and tittered about it for days amongst themselves. The Accounts had something for everybody.
"Confessions! Warnings, for the children!" I raised an eyebrow I hoped Mme. Graveau didn't see. "Repentance! Humility before our Lord! How these men die, hmn? I mean, they hang, that's how they die, but how they die." There was not, as far as I ever discerned, a M. Graveau. "What is in their hearts, their phiz, do they have messy pantaloons?" I tried not to let my face betray my disgust, for Mme. Graveau did not mean are they wearing trousers appropriate to the occasion? Luckily, she had been bent toward my ear. But then she straightened. "But you know, hmn? You know what the people like. You write it!" Tousling my hair. Exhausting. And I recalled only once mentioning someone's messy pantaloons, and that time it was critical to my Account.
I drained my gin, and looked around meaningfully, as if there were somebody else but Mme. Graveau to replenish me. But no, hectoring first, gin later. "But that is what troubles me so." Leaning in again, closer than before. "I don't know how you write it. I mean, you write it here, right here in Mme. Graveau's. I tell everybody that, you know. Every!" Poke. "Body!" Poke. "But how you write it, I don't know."
She reared back and pounced on her point. "How you do it without going crazy. See people die horribly, then describe it in detail – and don't lose your charm and cheerfulness." Wink. I assured her that on every day but a hanging day, I had a surfeit of both. She agreed, ostentatiously. Her fingertips brushed my shoulder, she agreed so much. Laughing, she took my cup with her to where the gin was. I exhaled.
YOU ARE READING
Upon Tyburn TreeHistorical Fiction
A chronicler of hangings in 18th-century London is inspired to do something about them. This story won third place out of 169 entries in the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association/Students For Liberty joint short fiction contest under the title, "A...