It is bitterly cold.
A freezing wind carries flurries of damp sleet that sticks to everything in its path. The open area is filled with spectators, despite the weather. The crowd shudders in unison as a fresh blast of frigid air whistles through the air, the streets, the coats and the already damp blankets of those watching.
Smart peddlers mingle with the crowd, attempting to foist everything from food to hope on the gullible and the desperate. Pickpockets slither from group to group, avoiding the notice of their victims, evading the constables with long practiced skill.
Men in smart suits stand shoulder to shoulder with coal merchants and cleaners. Women, flushed of face or hardened to the spectacle stand in small groups, gossiping noisily as children run through conversations, under legs, and on and off any platform they can find, aside from one.
The reason for their presence stands in the middle of the green, a large, temporary, wooden structure, built without style or care. A rough ladder leans to the side of the construction, the only means of access to the upper levels.
A pair of wooden posts rise from the platform, crossed at the top by a substantial beam. A wet rope hangs from the centre of the crossbeam, straight for a length, and then looped and knotted. Icy water drips from the braid, recent sleet white on the windward side of the hemp.
A tall man in a black suit, covered by an impressive coat, stands beside the noose. His cold fingers inspect the rope, his face turning to the roadway as an open wagon rumbles into the area, and across the now swampy grass. His expression might be interesting, were his entire face not covered with a black mask. Snow sticks momentarily to this as well, providing unexpected details as to the shape under it. Dark piercing eyes can be seen through a slit in the mask.
Two guards climb from the wagon, shielding their faces from the wind and rain, urging a prisoner to climb down between them. The man is dressed in dirty rags, his thin frame shaking in the cold. His hands are tied behind his back, and a substantial shackle connects his legs, though he's obviously in no shape for any attempt at escape.
The crowd finds a focus as the man climbs to the ground, splashing mud on the clothes of the guards and himself with every cold step. The conversation slows as the people turn to watch the show. The groups pass comment on the look of him, the evil, even demonic nature of the man. A few take the opportunity to throw their recently purchased food items at him, and he tries to hide his face from their violence, though it's their gaze that he fears more.
The man doesn't seem capable of doing any harm. His thin frame is topped by a narrow face, unshaven for some time, dirty, wet and cold. One eye is sunken into his head, and those standing close enough can see the painfully red infection that causes it to constantly weep.
I see one of the guards trip the man to the ground. With his hands tied there is nothing he can do to protect himself, and he falls face down into the freezing mud. The guards remove the shackle roughly before carelessly slicing the rope holding his hands. Free now to move, he doesn't, lying there until an enterprising child from the audience swings a booted foot at his ribs. No one tries to stop the young thug, and he does it again before the man stumbles to his feet, and is shoved inexorably towards the ladder by the guards.
The crowd starts shouting as he is forced to climb the traditional thirteen rungs, distinct voices clearly denouncing him one after another, before being drowned in the general noise of the group. Occasionally you can hear a woman or child raising a treble voice against the howling wind.
As the man stumbles off the top of the ladder to collapse on the platform, a guard climbs quickly up behind him, chivvying him first with words and then with the brutal thump of a truncheon. The largely incapable man stumbles to his feet, leaning on the posts for support. Another guard appears on the platform, and the two of them again tie the man's hands behind his back before literally dragging him between the posts where the dripping rope swings in the wind.
The black-clad hangman takes control now, and the guards stand to one side, their usefulness at an end, making them no more than a part of the audience despite their height above the crowd.
The hangman stands behind his client. Thinly gloved fingers turn the helpless man to the noose. The masked face speaks with him a moment, slaps the convict's face to gain attention, and addresses him again. The mask nods in understanding of the brief response, and beckons down to the wagon. A priest climbs wearily from the front of the transport, and drags himself up the ladder to the slippery wooden platform.
A word or two with the hangman, and the priest turns to the convict and then, attempting to hold his bible open in the wind and rain, begins to recite familiar verses to all in the crowd, but especially to the man wavering between the posts.
The hangman, strong now in his assigned role, holds the convict steady before the rope, slowly pulling the thick loop over his grey balding hair before tightening the noose about his thin throat. Cautioning his client to remain still, the hangman walks off to the side of the platform and adjusts the length of the rope, long experience telling him the slack required. He returns to the man for a time, steadying him until the priest completes the hurried reading. The priest closes his drenched bible and stands to the side with the guards.
At this point the man in the mask addresses some final words to the convict and walks quietly to the other side of the platform, away from the guards and the priest.
For a moment the tableau is still, the crowd is silent, and the rain stops. Suddenly a huge flash of lightning illuminates the centre of the town, and the characters on the structure are silhouetted against the brilliance of the light. As though this is a signal, the hangman, his dark eyes hidden in his black mask, pulls a lever, and the floor drops out from beneath the noose.
The captive man falls through the trapdoor. His bound neck stops suddenly as the rope become tight. The rest of his body is unable to adjust so abruptly, and it continues the downward motion long enough snap his neck.
By the time the body jerks to a halt, he is dead. The convict, so recently brutalised with boots and truncheon, is merely a carcass. The breaking of his body punishes an innocent, harmless man, destroys my faith in God, and makes me, suddenly, a widow.
I'd known all along what this would be like, in my mind. I'd mapped the steps, and I knew what would happen. Now though, I was unprepared, incoherent.
The crowd had roared with exultation, excitement, and perhaps a little fear as they hanged him, somehow feeling that justice had been done. I'd been in such a crowd before, and was very aware of my own feelings at the time. I'd stood amongst the children and the toffee-apple sellers, the petty thieves and the well dressed men, and I'd screamed for blood with the rest of them.
This time though, I didn't hear them. The crowd might have gone deathly silent as the lever was tugged. I'd not have noticed. There had only been the two of us present.
I stumbled away from the green, turning for one last look before following the rest of the crowd from the seemingly even colder scene. The sellers were chanting again, pressing their wares into cold hands for the small time that remained.
Most of the gentlemen in the crowd dispersed quickly to the hotels, or to their carriages and to home for breakfast. Some, though, waited around in the small square, or in some of the less inviting alleyways nearby. Their tastes were a little lower, their needs somewhat more blatant, and on a day like this there were few social boundaries.
I walked alone, across the end of a small street, largely the setting-down place for old and broken items. The alley was littered with various discards, rotten and rusty, some blown around in the wind perhaps. The light was still low, but I could see that sales were not confined to the green, and the crowd that had gathered in the light. Women and girls roamed this particular street, eager to pick up a few coins for their efforts. There were even a few pretty boys, eager to take advantage of more esoteric needs.