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Excerpt from A Hangman for GhostsExcerpt from A Hangman for Ghosts
CHAPTER 1.CHAPTER 1.
Particulars of an Execution
Sydney, New South Wales
1829
 
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A WOMAN WAS shrieking in the cells when the hangman and the surgeon met inside the gates of old Sydney Gaol.

“Dreadful howling,” remarked the gaoler, Wilmot, as he set their names in the gate-book. “Expect you’ll find the condemned quieter.”

“Then by all means,” said the surgeon, grimacing as he wrote his signature, “let us go in.”

Gabriel Carver, convict hangman, scratched his version of a cross under the surgeon’s name.

All three struck out into the short yard, diving into the merciless sandstone glare. The screams rolled along the pitted yellow walls, blended with the burning of the naked sun. They mounted the high steps and hurried along the terrace. Around the corner, along the row of confinement cells, the gaoler strode to a hobnailed wooden door and threw down the shutter.

The surgeon, Moynihan, glanced at the impassive hangman and stepped forward to peer into the cell.

“Doyle,” said the gaoler. “Coughing all night. He’s to hang tomorrow. Took with a pleurisy, he says. Malingering most likely. So, is he fit to walk to the scaffold?”

Moynihan looked in. The surgeon was slender, neatly dressed, perspiring in his black coat. He had a long nose and smooth face, but for a small, sharp line of worry or grief centred above the eyes.

The cell was dim and stale, enclosing an iron bed and the hunched spectre of the man on it: a spare, bearded figure, biting on his thumb as he rocked back and forth.

“I shall have to examine him,” said Moynihan.

“Here’s the surgeon,” announced Wilmot, stepping between them and jangling his keys, “to see you’re fit to dance tomorrow.”

Wilmot hauled the door back. The shade of the cell brought no relief from the clutching heat.

The prisoner peered blearily into the illuminated space beyond. “And what’s he here for?”—meaning the hangman.

Gabriel Carver was a good head taller than the surgeon. He had broad shoulders—at least, they seemed so by the length of his arms—and wide, dexterous hands, like a fisherman’s. He wore no hat, coat, nor waistcoat, only a shirt and a black kerchief knotted around his neck. His features were naturally pale but darkened by the sun: a thick, straight nose, bitter mouth, and deep-set eyes, with the taint of sleeplessness and blood-shot about them. He looked as closely at the prisoner as the surgeon, but did not respond.

Wilmot, squat and unsentimental, with small boots and a tight waistcoat, interposed—“He’s to measure you for your ball gown.”

The prisoner hacked through a long cough, pushed himself upright with one arm, and was half guided, half dragged out of his cell and onto the terrace. Doyle peered around, turning his haggard face and matted beard, but his dust-crusted eyes, when they settled anywhere, were drawn to the impassive hangman.

“I ain’t afraid to do the walk,” he croaked.

“No one asked your opinion, you mongrel,” chirruped Wilmot.

“I shall take your pulse,” said Moynihan softly.

“Don’t see as how it matters,” said the prisoner, but he allowed his narrow wrist to be taken. The man’s right hand was twisted and the fingers curled against the palm. Moynihan lowered his eyes to count and released the hand after a half-minute.

“This malingering dog cracked open an overseer’s head with a spade,” said the gaoler, conversationally, to the watching hangman.

“I doubt that,” said Moynihan quietly, as he slipped his pocket watch away.

“I did, so,” croaked Doyle. “He was intolerable severe with me.”

The hangman snorted under his breath and looked down at the floor, where the soft, pale stone had been worn to a hollow.

“Killed him, that’s plain, ain’t it?” wheedled Doyle, plucking at Wilmot’s sleeve.

“Now I must listen to your lungs.”

Doyle stripped off his coarse yellow and black wool shirt. Even the gaoler looked aside: the man’s back was layered with scars and fresh red welts.

“Breath in,” said Moynihan. “Out!” He leaned in to follow the exhalation.

Wilmot tucked his thumbs into his waistcoat. “Well? Is he ready for his dose?”

The surgeon tilted his head again. “We shall see. But is there no hope of reprieve otherwise?”

“What do you mean by reprieve?” said Wilmot. “On what grounds?”

In an undertone, Carver said, “Mark you that man’s right wrist?”

“What of it?”

Moynihan blinked and glanced at the hangman, as if he were also an unusual case, newly revealed. Then he said, “A fracture, from a fall, I expect, that did not heal cleanly. Look. The bones are not aligned. The fingers only partially open. The hand is weak, and the grasp is feeble.”

The hangman shook his head.

“You disagree?” asked the surgeon mildly.

“There was no fall,” said Carver. “That is the mark of the flogging frame. If the prisoner is not bound right, he faints or twists in his agony, and breaks the wrist.”

Moynihan nodded and straightened, turning to Wilmot. “Can you see a man with a weak hand like this raise up a shovel and strike hard and sure enough to kill?”

“If he could not do it, why confess?” said the gaoler, jangling his keys. “There were informants enough besides, the whole gang.”

“That, I admit, I cannot answer,” said Moynihan, frowning as he tapped his palm against the man’s back.

“I done it for me own peace.” Doyle’s wheeze came high-pitched, tumbling out of his caved chest. “He wouldn’t let off me. Said I made the whole chain slow.”