Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein

Prologue: Aesop's Fable

The consequences of our actions never die: repentance and time may paint them to us in a different shape, but though we shut our eyes, they are still beside us, helping the inexorable destinies to spin the fatal thread, and sharpening the implement which is to cut it asunder. —Mary Shelley, Author of Frankenstein

At the bottom of Snow Hill, on the corner where Skinner Street joined Holborn and Farringdon, a stone-carved Aesop glimmered in the morning fog. The statue marked the entrance to a rickety, five-story building. Above it a wooden sign swung in the breeze. “Number 41 Skinner Street,” it read. “The Juvenile Library of M.J. Godwin & Company.” The Aesop reflected a transformed illusion: tamed by historians, by Christian moralists, by the cold North Atlantic, and by Britain’s nineteenth century propensity for the proper. It reflected nothing of Aesop’s life as a slave, nothing of his hunchback, nothing of his execution at Delphi. Unperturbed by the rowdy Londoners pressing up Skinner Street, the Aesop stood guard over the four children who waited restlessly at his feet.

In the steeple of St. Sepulchre, the bells chimed a hollow summons through the echoing dawn.

“We’ve been waiting for you forever!” Jane’s voice shrilled as ten-year-old Mary Godwin hurried through the bookshop door, pulling at her cloak.

“Them pricks better swing pretty,” a male voice rang out.

The children turned to the sound. A wagon, lit by four lanterns, clattered into view. It was surrounded by grim, red-coated soldiers, their swords hanging ready at their sides. Two men lay on the wagon-bed, shackled together in a heap of manacles and blood. Mary bit her lip, stifling a cry.

“…Juicy little night birds.” Several men, ale in hand, veered precariously close to the children.

“Snugged me a bit of rabbit-pie, I did!”

“Ah gaw on!”

“Me todger’s been up ‘alf the night.”

“Bloody Hell!”

A dog barked.

“Come on,” Charles commanded, pushing into the throng, his youthful body well-suited to the challenge. “Keep your wits about you and don’t get separated.” Following after the soldiers, he led his younger siblings past the shop where the Turkish men sold kerosene and lamp oil, past the tanners, and past the buildings that housed the carpet-makers, the furriers, and the milliners and hatters. Each doorway exuded its own brand of noxious odor.

Cavernous tenements and warehouses towered above the children, some empty, others closed tight against the morning. And although the Godwin’s newly-opened bookshop stood at the corner like a beacon of culture, the shoddy building that housed it was no better than the rest—hardly a suitable home. Until last week the children had lived just beyond the northern edge of the city, in a cloister of urban domesticity tucked into wide-open, undulating countryside. Mary was still grieving the loss. She drew a breath. London stank.

“This way!” Charles called out as he slipped through an opening in the crowd.

By the time the children reached St. Sepulchre, cresting the top of Skinner Street, Mary was spellbound. People swarmed everywhere across the wide cobbled square that ran from the church all the way to Newgate prison. Dragoons, come from the hundreds encamped in St. Paul's Churchyard, maneuvered through the crowd, alert to the slightest suggestion of trouble. They had good reason to be wary. The mob, gathered to see the double hanging, smoldered with volatility.

Everywhere Mary looked, from the gray brick facade of Newgate prison down toward the session house of Old Bailey’s courts, and all across the square, forms rippled in the thick morning gloom. The churchyard was jammed with carriages, most with their occupants sitting atop them in hopes of a better view. People were balanced on lamp poles, perched on ledges, leaning from balconies and pressed onto rooftops. Mary had never been in such a crowd. Thoughts of her papa’s stern insistence to stay away from this morning’s events brought a wave of dismay.

The death cart had clattered to a halt in front of St. Sepulchre’s lofty bell tower and an incongruous spectacle was unfolding. One of the soldiers had broken rank and was scooping up two nosegays of flowers from the sanctuary steps. He tossed them grandly at the hapless prisoners. “Having ourselves a regular soirée this morning, ain’t we?” he cackled.

Repugnance turned Mary back down the street, but the raw river of humanity surging toward her prevented escape. She could not push against the tide.

“Come on,” Charles insisted.

She wanted to tell him to stop, that they’d gone far enough, but the determined lad pressed on, Jane tight on his heels and five-year-old William squirming after them. Poor Fanny was fighting hard to keep hold of William’s hand. Mary dashed to bring up the rear. Of the five children, only little William was the genuine offspring of MJ Godwin & Company. The rest formed the haphazard design of second marriage.

Charles was headed for the middle of the crowd. He had an uncanny ability to wind first this way, and then that, his every step bringing the children closer to the tall scaffolding looming in the center of the cobbled square. Rushing to keep up, Mary stumbled and regained her balance only to find a pie seller had slipped between her and the others.

“Hot! Hot! Hot! Pudding hot pies!” A large tray hung on the man’s shoulders, the pungent smell of kidney and onions hovering about him like a cloud. He bumped against Mary, cutting off her advance just as Charles bolted through another fluid tunnel in the crowd. She tried to squeeze past the big-bellied man, but was caught in the crush of bodies.

“Like knaves at a feast, they is.” The man had a long scar across his cheek. “Like knaves at a feast.” He winked at Mary as a tight throng of takers, pennies clutched in their fingers, pushed and shoved, clamoring after his pies. Mary swallowed a stab of panic, trying hard to do as Charles had commanded, and keep her wits about her.

“What are you waiting for? Hang the bloody rogues!” An angry voice exploded at close range, and Mary was forced aside as a gentleman, warmly dressed and gloved against the cold morning air, pushed roughly by. Lowering her head, she attempted to follow him through the tight knot of people. Thunder rumbled. All around her the crowd cheered and hooted.

“Mary!” a faint voice shouted. It was Charles.

“I’m here!” she cried, trying to move in the direction of the voice. But just as she did, two boys burst past, and knocked her to the ground.

“Worm-picker!” one of them shouted.

She was hemmed in on all sides, fighting to regain her feet.

“Offspring of a dunghill! Brother to a pumpkin!” Above her the boys flung their epithets along with a volley of rotten tomatoes. In an abrupt, desperate burst of determination, Mary wrestled her way up, pulling and grabbing at the bodies around her until she was once more on her feet.

“Cock-brains!” a man yelled.

Everywhere the jeering, cheering shrieks became more menacing as the crowd pressed forward to storm the scaffolding with a barrage of rotten vegetables and eggs—even excrement was flying. The air reeked. Forced ever closer to the gallows, Mary saw four soldiers turn tail and try to retreat up the steep steps of the big wooden structure. Built quickly the previous day, it swayed ominously from side to side.

“You scum!” a huge, hooded, black leopard of a man bellowed at them from atop the scaffolding. “Keep the bloody hell to your posts!” The soldiers scrambled back down as thunder rolled again and the air thickened with impending rain.

“Fanny?” Mary called, “Charles?” But her siblings were gone, sucked into a hate-filled sea of humanity. It was a moment Mary would not forget, a moment when something her papa had taught her suddenly made sense. The citizens of Delphi forced Aesop over a cliff, Godwin said, because they were afraid of the hunchback, intolerant of his difference. Fear, her papa insisted, easily turned decent, ordinary people into an unthinking mob.

Mary watched as the bigger of the two manacled prisoners was forced up the steps. The executioner grabbed his victim and wrestled him onto one of the man-sized trapdoors built into the scaffolding floor—the newest innovation in the art of execution.

“You’re going to stand here, Holloway,” the leopard man growled. “Going to stand like a bleeding gentleman!”

The prisoner spat and heaved his body at the executioner, but the hooded man stood well prepared, gleeful almost, as his black-gloved fist smashed against Holloway’s temple, dropping him to his knees.

Mary gasped. The crowd screamed its approval.

“Like a bleeding gentleman, I said!” The executioner pulled the big man back to his feet, forced the noose over his neck, and tightened it with a jerk.

Blood pounded in Mary’s ears.

The smaller of the two prisoners had collapsed in a faint. The executioner propped him up, splashed sour water in his face and hovered, almost maternally, until the scrawny man regained his feet. Mary stared as, choking and shaking, the prisoner was pushed onto his drop, a noose fitted around his neck. For a moment their eyes met, then his closed. He looked no older than Charles.

“Make way! Make way!” A line formation of dragoons shoved and pushed people back from the loose-jointed gallows.

“Out of the way, girlie!” a soldier hollered. Mary saw his saber, his pistol, the white and red of his uniform, but she couldn’t move except with the press of the crowd.

“Clear off! Make way for the magistrate!”

“The devil take you!” a big woman yelled. She pushed Mary aside and stood her ground.

A soldier stopped right in front of the woman. “Clear off!” he screamed in her face. “Make way or you’ll spend the day in the pillory!”

With the force of their rifles, like shields and armor, they opened a breach in the crowd for the coach that was bounding up from Old Bailey. Polished to perfection, its driver cracked his whip as stragglers jumped out of the way and horse hooves sang across the cobbled stone.

The coach pulled to an abrupt stop just as the bells at St. Sepulchre chimed the hour: seven o’clock. Mary watched the magistrate emerge from the carriage, his tight waistcoat showing silky ruffs at the wrists, his wig, white and proper, atop his head. He mounted the scaffolding steps, raised his hand and unrolled a thin document. The crowd grew quiet as his voice boomed forth, brisk and passionless.

“Death by hanging,” he read, “of one L. D. Haggerty and one Gordon K. Holloway for the murder on the first day of November in the year of our Lord, 1807, of Mr. Charles Mason Steel, silver merchant on the Strand. The execution to be carried forth on this, the eleventh day of November in the year of our Lord, 1807, by order of his majesty, King George III.”

The magistrate’s hand hovered in the air, gold rings encircling pudgy fingers. The executioner bent down between the two prisoners and, upon the descent of the magistrate’s hand, forced back the strong metal pins that held the two drops closed. As the traps flew open, Gordon K. Holloway and L. D. Haggerty plunged downward. Their eyes bulged with pressure. They gagged. Their bodies jerked as blood rushed from their noses and ears. Their necks stretched unnaturally long. The crowd drew its breath and shrieked as the bodies swayed to and fro.

Mary stared as the strangling men lurched about and the crowd flapped ecstatically. Her hand strayed to her own neck as her throat tightened with revulsion. Suddenly, her stomach heaved. Her mouth filled with the taste of bile. She bent over and vomited.

Choking and coughing, tears rushing down her cheeks, she began to squeeze and shove. Two old women blocked her way, haggling over the price of the eggs. Mary threw her slender body hard against them, lunging so forcefully that the woman holding the eggs lost her balance, and one of the precious gems smashed to the ground.

“You bleeding little brat, I’ll have it out of your soft-bred hide,” the woman screamed.

But Mary was gone, pushing blindly until she ejected herself from the reveling press of onlookers. The jam of carriages crowding St. Sepulchre’s churchyard forced her finally to a standstill. Wary of the agitated horses, she stood for a moment before seeing an opportunity to slip around the backside of the carriages where she took refuge against the cool, stone wall of the church. Wiping her lips with her sleeve, she leaned back with relief against its welcome support.

A knot of well-dressed young men, some reeling drunkenly, hovered among the carriages bickering over who should board each departing coach. One youth stood apart from the fracas, leaning like herself, against the wall of the old church and she studied him. His dress bespoke a gentleman, elegantly dashing in the fashion of the day. Tight, creamy breeches displayed strong thighs and rounded buttocks. A chestnut-colored coat hugged his fine physique, black riding boots rose to his knees. But it was not his dress, nor the pale beauty of his face that held Mary so completely. It was the goblet the man grasped in his hand. She stepped closer.

He raised his cup in a sweeping toast, pressing his lips to the bowl and drinking deeply of its contents. She gazed openly at him as he did. He laughed. “Death,” he said and unfolded his hand to reveal a manicured and polished human skull, stark on its silver stem.

Mary stared. His eyes mocked her. “It spares no one, lass. Best make a friend of it while you can.” He laughed again and, barely turning his back, unbuttoned his breeches and relieved himself against the church. He stepped forward just as his coachmen arrived.

“Your carriage, Milord.” The coachman bowed and offered up an ivory-handled cane carved in a caricature of a voluptuous mermaid.

The young man snatched the cane and nodded briefly to Mary. “My Lady.” The ivory flashed in his hand. He leaned into it and grimaced, tightening his lips, as she saw for the first time how he was forced by some infirmity to walk with a limp. As she watched him swing aboard a sleek, two-wheeled landau, tears came anew. She gathered her frock at the waist in a habitual action, revealing her pantalets and freeing her legs, making it easier to run. Taking quick advantage of the pathway the gentleman’s carriage was wedging in the crowd, she followed after. As the landau turned north at the corner, so did Mary, heading past St. Sepulchre’s tattered old graveyard and on toward the lonely stench of animal flesh and slaughter that perfumed the wide expanse of Smithfield’s market.