The Unfortunate Deaths of Jonathan Wild
The storm came out of nowhere.
The First Mate looked in disbelief at the sky as the scattered clouds were drawn together as if by a giant hand. As they gathered, they turned black and lightning flashed. A giant swell began to build with waves towering up above the side of the ship. The ship heeled over as the swell and a sudden gale slammed into it. It had taken maybe one minute.
“All hands!” he yelled.
The crew were already moving. Alerted by the sudden swell they poured out onto the deck and climbed desperately up the rigging. They were a good, experienced crew and they knew that they must shorten sail and quickly.
The bosun’s whistle sounded shrill above the now howling wind, piping out instructions to the men aloft. The ship rocked and men fought to keep their grip as they spread out across the yardarms.
The rain started, drenching everyone in seconds. Hailstones the size of a man’s fist fell, tearing holes in the sails. One sailor was hit in the head and fell stunned into the sea.
The First Mate had no time to look. He was wrestling with the wheel, trying to keep the ship on a safe heading. The Captain appeared beside him and together they hauled desperately.
They were winning, the First Mate thought. The sails were shortening and already handling was becoming easier. They were the best crew he had ever worked with — he had never seen sails taken in so fast. He thought he might yet see his wife and children in Portsmouth once again.
Suddenly, the wheel spun in his hand and there was a loud crack, sounding like a cannon above the gale.
“Rudder’s gone!” he shouted unnecessarily. Every man on board knew what the sound meant.
The ship started to turn slowly. We could still survive, he thought. The masts would probably go but if we could cut them loose the ship might bob around until the storm blew away. It couldn’t be long. Already he thought he saw a patch of blue sky in the distance.
As he watched, the small speck of colour grew and he realised it wasn’t sky at all but a patch of putrescent grey-blue. It wasn’t growing, it was getting closer.
A slash of yellow appeared on the front of whatever it was and through the lashing rain he could see small, red dots on its surface. As it grew closer and closer he realised it was enormous, almost as big as the ship.
The details resolved themselves and the yellow slash became a huge mouth, lined with teeth, each the length of a man’s arm and the thickness of his thighs. A greenish liquid dripped from bloated lips and hissed as the rain hit it.
The red dots became eyes, hundreds of them peering hungrily in all directions. The whole thing glowed in the dim light like poisonous toadstools in a forest of rotting wood.
The first mate screamed. All thoughts of duty, family and even of survival were lost in an overwhelming madness of terror.
A drop of green liquid from the creature’s mouth fell on his arm and he felt an agonising pain as it burned through the rough cloth of his jacket. It barely had time to register before the massive jaws closed on him, crushing and swallowing him in an instant before turning to its next victim.
Men ran and leapt into the sea, screaming or praying according to their natures. Nothing made any difference. All were overwhelmed by the horror in the sky and devoured.
* * *
The lookout on a Newcastle coal ship, passing the spot a few hours later, saw what looked like the shattered remains of a large trading ship. The Captain ordered a boat across to look for survivors but there were none, not even any bodies. He said a brief prayer for the fate of its crew and then set sail again for land. Ships foundered all the time. Being a sailor was a dangerous trade.
They hanged Jack Sheppard on 16th November 1724 and everyone except Jack enjoyed the day out. He was the darling of the London mob, famous for his impossible escapes from Newgate Prison. Tyburn Road was thronged with well-wishers — young women threw him flowers and men cheered him. Even the ghosts of former executions applauded although I don't think anyone but me noticed.
At the triple tree itself he made a fine show, waving carelessly to the crowd as the rope was tied over the bar. Then they whipped up the horse and he swung off the cart into eternity.
It was good for business. Pie men and milkmaids cried their wares and sold them rapidly to the hungry and thirsty crowd. Flower sellers coined enough profit for several weeks. The hangman made a fortune selling the rope for sixpence an inch. And my friend Todd and I picked some rich pockets in the dense and raucous Tyburn crowd.
There was a riot afterwards with a fight over Jack’s body but it broke up when they sent in the Marshall’s men with bayonets. It was a good riot because Todd picked a pocketbook out of a prosperous pocket and it contained about twenty guineas in gold and silver, various documents and a banknote for one hundred and twenty pounds, nine shillings and fourpence. I remember the amount well for it represented a good year’s thieving for us and we went and celebrated enthusiastically.
It was late by the time Todd and I climbed the three flights of dirty wooden stairs back to our room. We had been celebrating since the late afternoon and we were very drunk. Our new clothes were rumpled and stained with drink and dirt. The lace at the bottom of my coat was torn and Todd's stockings were laddered. It had truly been a wonderful debauch and we had enjoyed every minute.
Todd slipped on a stair where someone had spilt some oil and went crashing back to the landing. Drunk as he was, he landed sprawling and without damage and we both laughed uproariously. I went and helped him up and, leaning heavily on each other, we stumbled upward, still giggling at his mishap. No one came out of their room to complain of the noise. It was not the sort of neighbourhood where you did that.
There was a light under our door. We stopped giggling and looked at each other dubiously. Even drunk as we were we knew this was wrong — we had definitely not left a candle burning when we left and, in any case, it would have burned down after all those hours. I listened carefully and thought I heard a deep snuffling sound like some sort of large dog, although that was hardly likely. Who would take a dog up all those stairs?
In imitation of gentlemen we were both wearing short swords. Neither of us knew how to use them properly but they were sharp. With a single thought we both took them out. Todd managed to cut his left hand in the process and swore. We could, I suppose, have just walked away, but we were cocksure and valiant with drink. Todd lifted a foot and, managing not to fall over, kicked open the door.
Sitting in the room's single chair was a man, reading a book by the light of a pair of candles. There was nothing particularly alarming about him. He was slim, neatly but unobtrusively dressed and of average height. His sober coat of grey wool hung open to reveal a plain moleskin waistcoat and breeches. His wig was smaller than was fashionable then. There was a three-cornered hat sitting on our small table. As we made our violent entrance he looked up, unconcerned, and carefully placed a strip of leather between the pages to mark his place before he put the book down beside his hat.
Outraged, Todd stumbled drunkenly towards him, his sword pointing at the man's chest. “Get out!” he said violently. “Get out before I run you through!” His speech was slightly slurred but his intent was more than clear. I followed him in, waving my own sword vaguely. The neat man seemed unworried.
“Hook,” he said softly.
Todd and I had a second to wonder what he meant, then the door slammed shut behind us with a crash. We jumped and turned and recoiled in horror. The candlelight flickered on a large, roughly dressed man and I very nearly pissed into my breeches. He was a dreadful sight.
At some point in his past he had lost the lower part of his left arm and had instead the wickedly curved hook that clearly explained the neat man's meaning and gave him his name. He stood awkwardly and at a slight angle suggesting injuries to his legs as well. But London is full of such sights. Far more horribly, you could see the great pox had its cold fingers tearing deep into his flesh.
His nose was a ghastly, rotting mess, oozing pus, and his breath came in a harsh bubbling noise — unforgettable and hideous. How I could have mistaken it for a dog, I had no idea. The smell of decay hung about him, of rotting flesh that is dying but not yet dead. The disease had deformed his face and twisted his lips into the parody of a grin, contrasting insanely with the near-dead eyes above. You could not imagine getting mercy from this monster. You could not even imagine him understanding any plea you might make. To our horror he started to lurch forwards.
“Hook!” called the neat man again, louder this time. The monster hesitated then once more lurched forward.
The dead eyes flickered and looked puzzled and he stopped. He looked around uncertainly then shuffled backwards and leant against the door. His right hand came across and pulled mindlessly on the hook on his left, twisting it back and forth. It was not a comforting sight. Both Todd and I were sobering rapidly.
The other man turned his attention unhurriedly back to us. “My name,” he said in a precise, educated voice, “is Abraham Mendez. I am come from Mr Jonathan Wild.”
Todd and I tore our eyes away from the horror by the door and gave him our full attention. Everyone in London knew Jonathan Wild. He controlled a great deal of the crime in the city and was feared by thieves everywhere.
Abraham noted our reaction and nodded. “I see you know who he is,” he said, which was a rhetorical statement if I ever heard one.
“Before I go any further,” he continued, “ I wish to explain about Hook so that there will be no misunderstandings.”
The monster gave no sign of having heard, nor did Abraham acknowledge him in any way.
“Hook is a very sick man. His mind is deranged. He is only in marginal control of himself. I am only marginally in control of him. I could make him become violent but I could not then stop him. Do you understand?”
We understood all too well. My gut was knotted tight and from the greenish look on Todd’s face he felt the same way. We both nodded mutely.
“Good. To business. This morning you stole a pocketbook from a young gentleman. As well as money, it has important papers in it. The young gentleman has asked Mr Wild to retrieve them. You were observed and will give the pocketbook to me.”
I don’t think I even considered disobeying and it wasn’t just Hook, although God knows he was enough. Instinctively, I knew that neat men with quiet, confident voices were infinitely more dangerous than monsters. They are either sure of their power, or mad, or both.
Fortunately for our continued good health, we had not discarded the pocketbook. We had considered doing so — the papers were after all of little use to us — but in the end had kept it as convenient holder for the money. Todd took it carefully out of his pocket and handed it across. His hand was trembling badly but Abraham just took the pocketbook without comment and looked inside. All the papers, plus the unspent portion of the money were still there. So, unfortunately, was the banknote which we had not yet converted into cash.
He got to his feet, stowing the pocketbook inside his coat. “You have put me to a great deal of trouble to find you,” he said. “I do not want to have to do so again. If you wish to become reader merchants you will inform Mr Wild whenever papers come into your possession and he will see that you are suitably rewarded.”
He picked up his hat and the book he had been reading and turned to his companion. “Come, Hook,” he said and started towards the door. Hook didn’t react. He was looking at us with worrying intensity and his remaining claw-like hand was clenched into a tight, trembling fist. He lurched away from the door towards us.
“Avec moi, Hook. Venez!”
Hook hesitated, half turned to follow, then turned back to us. His pupils were dilating rapidly and small bubbles of spittle started to form around his mouth.
“No Sebastian,” said Abraham under his breath. Both Todd and I pressed ourselves desperately back against the wall.
“Sebastian!” Abraham called, and for the first time I heard a strain in his voice. “Venez avec moi, enfant. Votre maman attend.”
I must have shown my shock for Abraham shot me a fast glance. The light in Hook’s eyes died and he looked confused. “Maman?” he said plaintively.
“Attente en bas pour moi, Sebastian,” said Abraham gently. “Je serai avec tu.”
The monster shuffled slowly out the door and down the stairs. Everyone in the room let out a deep breath. Abraham looked at me closely.
“You speak French,” he said flatly. “What is your name?”
“Bonenfant,” I replied. “Pascal Bonenfant.”
“Huguenot family?” he asked.
My parents were of Huguenot stock. Their parents had fled France when Catholic persecution of the Protestant religion became too bad. There had been too many massacres and the Huguenots had left by the tens of thousands, despite being forbidden to do so. As well as English they had taught me the language of their homeland. I nodded.
Abraham looked at me consideringly. “Hook’s mind is going,” he said. “Sometimes he responds to the language of his childhood.”
Todd spoke for the first time since Hook had appeared. “What if he hadn’t?”
“You would both be dead. Perhaps me as well, although I was closer to the door.”
He nodded and made as if leave, then seemed to change his mind. “As it happens,” he said, “I have need of a French speaker. I had someone but he thought he could cheat Mr Wild and so he is now unavailable. Put on some clean clothes and come with me.”
“But,” I said, bewildered, “what about yourself? Your French is as good as mine. Probably better.”
He did not even bother to answer. I investigated the small pile of clothes on the bed, looking for something suitable and not too filthy. Even Todd and I had a few reasonable clothes. London is one huge clothes market. Clothes start with the rich, who pass their clothes on to the merely well-to-do, who wear them for a while then forward them on to the middling sort and so eventually to those of us who lived at the bottom. I picked out a dull, respectable coat and some mostly clean stockings — I had no desire to attract the attention of Jonathan Wild.
When I was dressed I accompanied Abraham back down the stairs to where a shivering glimjack was waiting with his torch. In London, the darkness was only held back if the moon was full and there were no clouds. There was plenty of work for boys brave enough to carry a torch through the filthy and dangerous streets.
This particular boy was backed against the wall, staring at Hook in terror. Hook slowly turned his head towards us and grunted. Abraham indicated to the boy that we should move on and our strange group set off up the dark street — one terrified boy with a shaking torch, one bewildered thief, one enigmatic Jew and one lurching, shambling monster.
Jonathan Wild lived in a well-appointed four-storey house in the Old Bailey. It was some distance from where Todd and I lodged but no one bothered us on the way — probably a good thing for all concerned. Abraham was silent on the walk and refused to answer any questions
At Wild’s front door, Abraham tossed a coin to the boy who scuttled away into the darkness. He reached up and sounded the knocker loudly.
The door was opened promptly by a pair of footmen. Having two footmen was excessive, even for Wild, but I later discovered there was normally only one — a second was on duty for the party that I could hear happening upstairs. The older of the two sniffed when he saw who it was but both stood back and let Abraham enter. Hook and I followed after.
Jonathan Wild at that time was at the height of his power and for some years now had controlled, as I have said, a great deal of the crime in the city. At the same time, in his self-styled guise as Thief-Taker General, he was responsible for a large number being hanged or transported. He played both sides of the game and became rich.
He would find and return stolen items as he had done with us. In fact, pocketbooks had developed a market of their own. Specialist thieves known as reader-merchants would inform Wild whenever they had stolen what looked like important papers, saving him the trouble of hunting them down. If business was slow, he would organise the thefts himself.
He always worked at one remove — the victim always paid the ‘reward’ money to someone else — and so could never be convicted of being involved. The ‘someone else’ would, of course, quietly pay Wild the bulk of the reward money but it could never be traced.
A less scrupulous type of young gentlemen were drawn to his company for a vicarious sense of danger. Thus his influence extended even into the better classes of society.
The hall in front of us reflected Wild's sense of self-worth and was opulently painted in a rich red, offsetting the dark wood of the floor. Two high-backed black lacquered chairs stood against the left-hand wall, decorated with the twin dragons and cross that constitute the coat-of-arms of the City of London. I was fairly certain Wild was not entitled to display them but one of his self-awarded offices was “Deputy Marshall” of the city so perhaps he felt it added some legitimacy, however spurious, to that title. Between the chairs stood a small, gilt table, elaborately decorated with arabesques and with goat-foot legs. A large six-branched candelabra standing on it reflected light from the gilt mirror hanging on the wall opposite. To keep that many candles burning, just to light the hall, was a sign of wealth, which presumably was his intent.
In the bright light I could see Hook clearly and the clarity made his appearance even more shocking than it had been at our lodgings. There was nothing at all in the dead eyes except pain. His face was a mass of putrefying sores and his hair was lank and matted. His walk was an awkward shuffle and he seemed without purpose — just putting one foot in front of the other took all his concentration. Despite the horror of his appearance there was something indescribably sad about him. I looked up to see Abraham watching me with an inscrutable expression on his face.
As we passed into the hall I heard the younger of the two footmen mutter under his breath “You’d better take the big one out to the kennels.”
I would have sworn that Abraham was too far away to hear but he stopped and turned back to the two men.
“Pardon me,” he said gently, “but my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Could you repeat that, please?”
The one who had spoken stared back insolently and defiantly but said nothing.
“I thought you said,” Abraham continued, still in the same gentle tone, “take the big one out to the kennels? Perhaps I misheard?”
There was a long silence as Abraham continued to regard the man. The footman’s look of insolent defiance slowly slipped and the blood drained from his face. The moment dragged on. Hook turned around puzzled — it had finally reached his broken mind that something was wrong — and the footman flinched.
His companion cleared his throat noisily. “I believe, sir, that Edmund was just reminding me that we had yet to feed Mr Wild’s dogs.”
“Ah, yes,” said Abraham. “I thought I must have misheard.”
As if nothing had happened, he continued down the hallway. Hook’s head moved uncertainly, then he shuffled off after Abraham. I followed, feeling slightly sick in the stomach. I was sure that footman had very nearly died.
The front door had been standing open all this time. As the older footman went to close it, Todd stepped inside. “I’m with him,” he said casually, pointing in my direction.
Abraham stopped and turned again although Hook kept shuffling down the hallway and disappeared towards the back of the house. Abraham let him go. He looked at Todd and gave a faint shrug. The footman took this as assent, and Todd was inside.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I whispered.
“Couldn’t leave you to face this on your own, mate,” he whispered back. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to meet the great man.”
Half-way down, the hall widened. Stairs on the left led upwards and the hall continued past a door on the right and through to what was presumably the servants' area. Abraham led us up the stairs, past a pair of mahogany and gilt torchères with huge candles, to the hall above. At the end of the hall was a closed door behind which we could hear the sound of a loud party in progress. He opened it without knocking (no-one could possibly have heard us anyway) and entered.
The room was quite large, occupying the entire front of the house. The party inside was riotous to the point of debauchery. Men in various stages of drunkenness lolled on sofas, chairs and (in one extreme case) flat on the floor. Several young women (one could not call them ladies) sat on and beside them. Bottles of wine and spirits and the remains of food lay all around. A strong-looking man, his cravat askew, was standing before the fire, apparently making a speech to the dozen or so men seated around the room.
“So there I was,” he said loudly, “and I knew it was my lucky day.”
The group applauded mindlessly.
“Thanks to the excellence of the jury, I was acquitted of a terrible false charge of theft…”
Loud applause and laughter.
“And had my dear wife transported!”
One man thought this was so funny he choked on his wine and had to be thumped hard on the back by one of his companions.
Abraham looked around the room. “Mr Wild is not here,” he said. “Wait and I will find him for you.” He left, leaving us standing awkwardly beside the door.
The large man (who I had initially thought must be Jonathan Wild) turned and noticed us. “Who are you?” he asked, “and what are you doing here?” He strode across the room and stared at us. There was menace in his look.
“Abraham Mendez brought us,” I said.
The man looked sour. “That Jew!” he almost spat. “Why would he bring his filthy friends here?”
Without warning he swung and his open hand and hit me hard across the face. It was completely unexpected and threw me back against the wall. The hand flew back, knocking Todd to the ground.
“Doesn’t look like either of you can fight,” he growled and the men in the room laughed.
Todd picked himself up holding onto his cheek. “What was that for?” he asked shakily.
“The little one speaks,” the man said with derision. “I wonder if it sings as well.”
With effortless strength, he grabbed Todd around the throat and held him up against the wall until only his toes were touching the floor. Todd gasped and choked.
“I don’t think he sings very well,” he remarked. “Sounds more like a frog.” There was more laughter from the men about the room. “Maybe if you lift the frog a bit higher?” one of them called.
“Put him down, Arnold,” said a harsh voice. The large man dropped Todd as if he were suddenly hot and he fell awkwardly to the floor, gurgling.
A stocky man of medium height stood in the doorway. He was beautifully dressed in a long black coat of fine wool with lace ruffles at his wrists. I could see a bandage around his throat but it was mostly covered by a white silk stock. His waistcoat, which was long enough to almost hide his breeches, was red with gold embroidery. Good quality black buckled shoes and an elaborate wig completed his outfit. He could easily have been mistaken for a gentleman. The wig, I learned later, was hardly ever removed except to sleep as he was bald and moreover had several silver plates in his skull, the fruit of many a violent encounter.
“Sorry, Mr Wild,” said Arnold and he sounded contrite. “I didn’t realise he was one of yours.”
Arnold was a big man and he topped Jonathan Wild by several inches. At first sight you couldn’t understand why he had backed down so rapidly but then you looked at Wild’s face. A dangerous light glittered in the narrowed eyes. There was a granite-like strength in his whole demeanour. You could easily believe that this was the man who controlled nearly all the crime in London.
“I expect all guests in my house to be treated properly,” Wild snapped. His voice was hoarse and he winced, his hand moving to the bandage at his throat. I remembered hearing that a man named Blueskin had recently tried to cut his throat.
“Sorry, Mr Wild,” muttered Arnold again.
Wild smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile but I sensed everyone relax a little. “Unless,” he said, rather more softly, “I say otherwise, of course. Abraham, which one of these boys is the French speaker?”
“The one who can still speak, fortunately,” said Abraham dryly. Todd was upright again but was holding his throat and making small choking noises.
“Then who is this,” he said, pointing at Todd. “I didn’t ask for him. Arnold, toss him out the glazers.”
Todd gave a croaking yell of fear as Arnold grabbed him. We were on the first floor. Todd could probably have jumped from the window without much damage but being thrown out was dangerous. I hesitated, not sure what to do.
“I let him in,” said Abraham mildly. I thought it courageous of him but Wild just nodded.
“Give him a beating then,” he said to Arnold. “Not too hard and you can give him a drink afterwards.” He turned to me. “You, come this way.”
I heard a cry of pain from Todd but there was nothing I could do for him. He had chosen to come, after all. Wild led Abraham and me back down to the ground floor and through the door opposite the stairs. The room behind the door was simply furnished with a large but plain desk, several upright chairs and some cheap bookshelves filled with ledgers and piles of papers. There was a fireplace opposite the door and a window at the back would have given light during the day. The room was dimly illuminated by candlelight that came through a second door leading to the room at the front of the house. Wild led us through this door.
The room beyond was not particularly large and was dominated by a huge bureau-bookcase in red lacquer that stood beside the window. It was open with the writing panel pulled out and the arched folding doors turned back. Every available vertical surface was covered with opulent floral Chinese scenes. The shelves along the top were packed with neat, leather-bound books, their immaculate condition suggesting they had never been read. Other shelves and pigeon-holes were packed with writing books and papers which were equally obviously in everyday use. It was a magnificent piece of furniture and said a lot about Wild's sense of self-worth.
A walnut armchair with cabriole legs stood before the bureau and a small, matching low-backed settee for important visitors flanked the fireplace. Several hard chairs, for the less important, were against the opposite wall. On the edge of one of these sat a nervous-looking man with a weather-beaten face, his fingers fiddling with his coarse brown waistcoat. He jumped up as we entered. Another man in a respectable but unspectacular brown coat stood leaning against the wall with his arms folded. He straightened as Wild entered and, in response to Wild’s nod, left the room.
Wild moved to the desk, turned his armchair to face us and sat down. “What’s your name?” he said to me.
“Bonenfant, Mr Wild.” I was respectful. Wild’s manner did not encourage frivolity.
“Well Bonen…” he stumbled over it, “Bone,” he decided. “Bone, translate for me with this man.”
“Yes, Mr Wild,” I said and turned to the waiting man. Bone! In other circumstances I might have found it funny but Wild was obviously not joking.
“Bonsoir, Monsieur,” I said. “Je m’appelle Bonenfant. Je suis ici pour traduire pour vous.”
“Merci soient à notre dame,” the man exclaimed thankfully. “Quelqu'un qui parle français. J'ai été entouré par des barbares.”
I couldn’t help my grin. I strongly suspected he was still surrounded by barbarians.
“Comment vous appellez-vous, monsieur?”
“Jacques Fournier,” he replied succinctly.
I turned back to Jonathan Wild. “What do you wish me to say, Mr Wild?”
It turned out that the task I was there for was fairly trivial. Wild had some goods (almost certainly stolen) that he wanted urgently to ship across to France and his usual transport had been delayed. Fournier was a smuggler who had just unloaded his cargo of brandy and was happy to fill his holds for the return trip.
Wild’s voice became rapidly hoarser and softer and speaking was clearly painful for him. He fingered the bandage on this neck and I thought he looked pale. After a few minutes, he stopped. “Deal with it, Abraham,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper as he rose and left. “I’ll be upstairs.”
With his departure, everyone relaxed. Abraham took us back into the outer office then sat down behind the plain desk and waved us both to chairs. From a drawer, he took out a thick envelope and a sheet of paper and which seemed to contain a list of some sort and handed them across to Fournier. “Comme conveau,” he said. Fournier looked at the list, nodded and put both it and the envelope in his pocket.
“À quel moment patir en bateau?” asked Abraham, fluently and without hesitation.
“Demain, à plain.” Fournier stood up and walked to the door. “Au revoir,” he said and left.
The entire transaction took less than a minute and I never even got to say a word. Fournier would sail at high tide tomorrow and everything was agreed already. Abraham must have seen me staring. “Mr Wild,” he said blandly, “likes to understand all aspects of his business but usually he entrusts the details to me. You may go now.”
There was nothing to do but leave. Reluctantly, I decided I should try and rescue Todd and made my way back up the stairs but when I cautiously poked my head around the door, the party was still going and he was in no need of help. He was dishevelled and I rather thought he might have a black eye the next day but he was sprawled on a settee with wine in one hand and girl in the other, laughing at something one of the men had just said. He needed no help from me and I quietly shut the door again and left.
* * *
Late the following night I was walking home from the Covent Garden and had cut through St Mary’s churchyard. I have always been able to see ghosts and there were many in the churchyard but they seldom bothered me — they were all interred with due ceremony and had died of mostly natural causes — unlike the restless ghosts around the Tyburn gallows.
I was halfway across when I heard the sound of voices so I crouched down behind a tombstone. The ghosts might be harmless but meeting unknown people in quiet places in London in the middle of the night is seldom a good idea.
“This way, Sebastian,” said a voice gently. It sounded like Abraham so I peered out cautiously and it was indeed he and his monster. Hook made a bubbling noise like a mixture of choking and crying. I saw him stumble forward. Abraham was holding an arm and guiding him along. “Not much further.”
A few paces on he stopped and let go. “Look at the moon, Sebastian,” he said and quietly took a step backwards.
Hook lifted his head and peered upwards. A half-moon shone through a gap in the clouds but there was nothing special about it that I could see. Hook made a noise that might have been a question.
The sharp report of a pistol sounded loud in the night air. Abraham lowered his arm and watched as Hook collapsed forwards and fell into a freshly dug grave. I must have made an exclamation because Abraham spun round towards me, pulling a second pistol out of his pocket as he did so. “Come out!” he commanded.
I would have run but there was something in his voice that pulled me forwards without volition. I struggled against it but couldn’t stop myself. He strode towards me, the pistol held ready, then relaxed as he recognised me. “What are you doing here?”
The pistol was still pointing at me. “I was going home. You,” I added inanely, “just shot him!”
Abraham lowered the pistol and I found I had control of my own limbs again. “Come and help me cover him over,” he said. “I asked the sexton to dig a grave yesterday. He knows I sometimes fill them in myself.”
The matter-of-fact manner in which he said this was chilling. I had no desire to be complicit in this murder but I was too scared to run away. Abraham handed me the shovel, which was stuck into the mound of earth and I started heaving the earth into the hole. It was, I had to admit, a very neat way of getting rid of bodies. Who would look for a murdered man in a properly dug grave?
There was only one shovel. Abraham stood and watched me as I worked. “It is an odd thing,” he mused, “how you do not see changes when they happen slowly, day by day. Last night, I saw Sebastian - Hook — through your eyes. I just hadn’t noticed how bad he was, yet it was obvious.”
It wasn’t a murder, I thought. More an act of kindness. I hoped I would have the strength to do that for Todd in similar circumstances and he for me. Compassion may require us to take the laws of God into our own hands. “He was your friend, wasn’t he?” I said.
Abraham nodded, knowing I understood. “Before the pox got him he was a great man, bursting with life and good humour. He saved the life of a poor young Jew, lost in a foreign city and being attacked by the mob. He took him home and tended his wounds and befriended him. We were together a long time.” A faint smile touched his lips. “Such times we had.”
The ghost of a young man appeared at his shoulder. The ghost’s expression was oddly sad and happy at the same time and looked as if he had in his time been a good person, the sort you might want to have as a friend.
The ghost put a hand on Abraham’s shoulder and unthinkingly, Abraham moved his hand across as if to touch it, half-turned to look at the apparition and gave a sad smile. My eyes must have widened because Abraham shot me a glance but he said nothing, just nodding to himself.
He stood quietly and watched as the grave filled. In a strange sort of way it was a companionable silence. When I had finished Abraham made me clean the shovel before returning it to the small shed where the sexton kept his tools. He was meticulous in all things.
I thought he was finished with me but he spoke again. “You have saved me some trouble turning up like this,” he said. “I have instructions for you from Mr Wild. Tell me, how old are you?”
“I’m eighteen,” I said, which indeed I was.
“You look older,” he said, “which is useful. Mr Wild was impressed by your manners and your knowledge of French. You will train as one of his spruce prigs. Do you know what they are?”
I did. Wild had a number of young men he employed to impersonate the gentry and make their way into large parties and balls. The crowds at these events were such that no one person knew everyone else so it was fairly easy to pretend you had a legitimate invitation. Once inside there was a fine selection of gold and jewellery available for the taking.
“Mr Wild has decided that you are suitable. Tomorrow afternoon, or rather, later today, you will report to me at the office. I have arranged for a dancing master — Lun his name is — who will teach you how to look and act like a gentleman.”
“Tell your friend to come as well. He could not pass as a gentleman but we have servants with us also. He can fill that part well enough.”
That was how I came to work for Jonathan Wild. He didn’t ask me whether I wanted to and there was no particular reason why he should. As a thief in London, working for Jonathan Wild was almost inevitable. He brooked no rivals and saw himself as the natural leader of the rogues of London.
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