At length came that day, that dreadful day, whose evening Sir Henry Ashwoode was never to see. Noon was the time fixed for the fatal ceremonial; and long before that hour, the mob, in one dense mass of thousands, had thronged and choked the streets leading to the old gaol. Upon this awful day the wretched man acquired, by a strange revulsion, a kind of stoical composure, which sustained him throughout the dreadful preparations. With hands cold as clay, and a face white as ashes, and from which every vestige of animation had vanished, he proceeded, nevertheless, with a calm and collected demeanour to make all his predetermined arrangements for the fearful scene. With a minute elaborateness he finished his toilet, and dressed himself in a grave, but particularly handsome suit. Could this shrunken, torpid, ghastly spectre, in reality be the same creature who, a few months since, was the admiration and envy of half the beaux of Dublin?
There was little or none of the fitful excitability about him which had heretofore marked his demeanour during his confinement; on the contrary, a kind of stupor and apathy had supervened, partly occasioned by the laudanum which he had taken in unusually large quantities, and partly by the overwhelming horror of his situation. He seemed to observe and
p.350hear nothing. When the gaoler entered to remove his irons, shortly before the time of his removal had arrived, he seemed a little startled, and observing the physician who had attended him among those who stood at the door of his cell, he beckoned him toward him.
Doctor, doctor, said he in a dusky voice, how much laudanum may I safely take? I want my head clear to say a few words, to speak to the people. Don't give me too much; but let me, with that condition, have whatever I can safely swallow. You knowyou understand me; don't oblige me to speak any more just now.
The physician felt his pulse, and looked in his face, and then mingled a little laudanum and water, which he applied to the young man's pale, dry lips. This dose was hardly swallowed, when one of the gaol officials entered, and stated that the ordinary was anxious to know whether the prisoner wished to pray or confer with him in private before his departure. The question had to be twice repeated ere it reached Sir Henry. He replied, however, quickly, and in a low tone,
No, no, not for the world. I can't bear it; don't disturb medon't, don't.
It was now intimated to the prisoner that he must proceed. His arms were pinioned, and he was conducted along the passages leading to the entrance of the gaol, where he was received by the sheriff. For a moment, as he passed out into the broad light and the keen fresh air, he beheld the vast and eager mob pressing and heaving like a great dark sea around him, and the mounted escort of dragoons with drawn swords and gay uniforms; and without attaching any clear or definite meaning to the spectacle, he beheld the plumes of a hearse, and two or three fellows engaged in sliding the long black coffin into its place. These sights, and the strange, gaping faces of the crowd, and the sheriff's carriage, and the gay liveries, and the crowded fronts and roofs of the crazy old houses opposite, for one moment danced like the fragment of a dream across his vision, and in the next he sat in the old-fashioned coach which was to convey him to the place of execution.
Only twenty-seven years, only twenty-seven years, only twenty-seven years, he muttered, vacantly and mechanically repeating the words which had reached his ear from those who were curiously reading the plate upon the coffin as he entered the coachonly twenty-seven, twenty-seven.
The awful procession moved on to the place of its final destination; the enormous mob rushing along with itcrowding, jostling, swearing, laughing, whistling, quarrelling, and hustling, as they forced their way onward, and staring
p.351with coarse and eager curiosity whenever they could into the vehicle in which Ashwoode sat. All the sightsthe haggard, smirched, and eager faces, the prancing horses of the troopers, the well-known shops and streets, and the crowded windowsall sailed by his eyes like some unintelligible and heart-sickening dream. The place of public execution for criminals was then, and continued to be for long after, a spot signifificantly denominated Gallows Hill, situated in the neighbourhood of St. Stephen's Green, and not far from the line at present traversed by Baggot Street. There a permanent gallows was erected, and thither, at length, amid thousands of crowding spectators, the melancholy procession came, and proceeded to the centre of area, where the gallows stood, with the long new rope swinging in the wind, and the cart and the hangman, with the guard of soldiers, prepared for their reception. The vehicles drew up, and those who had to play a part in the dreadful scene descended. The guard took their place, preserving a narrow circle around the fatal spot, free from the pressure of the crowd. The carriages were driven a little away, and the coffin was placed close under the gallows, while Ashwoode, leaning upon the chaplain and upon one of the sheriffs, proceeded toward the cart, which made the rude platform on which he was to stand.
Sir Henry Ashwoode, observes a contemporary authority, the Dublin Journal, showed a great deal of calmness and dignity, insomuch that a great many of the mob, especially among the women, were weeping. His figure and features were handsome, and he was finely dressed. He prayed a short time with the ordinary, and then, with little assistance, mounted the hurdle, whence he spoke to the people, declaring his innocence with great solemnity. Then the hangman loosened his cravat, and opened his shirt at the neck, and Sir Henry turning to him, bid him, as it was understood, to take a ring from his finger, for a token of forgiveness, which he did, and then the man drew the cap over his eyes; but he made a sign, and the hangman lifted it up again, and Sir Henry, looking round at all the multitude, said again, three times, In the presence of God Almighty, I stand here innocent; and then, a minute after, I forgive all my enemies, and I die innocent; then he spoke a word to the hangman, and the cap being pulled down, and the rope quickly adjusted, the hurdle was moved away, and he swung off, the people with one consent crying out the while. He struggled for a long time, and very hard; and not for more than an hour was the body cut down, and laid in the coffin. He was buried in the night-time. His last dying words have begot among most people a great opinion of his innocence, though the lawyers still hold to it that he was guilty. It was said that Mr. Blarden, the prosecutor,
p.352was in a house in Stephen's Green, to see the hanging, and as soon as the mob heard it, they went and broke the windows, and, but for the soldiers, would have forced their way in, and done more violence.
Thus speaks the Dublin Journal, and the extract needs no addition from us.
Gladly do we leave this hateful scene, and turn from the dreadful fate of him whose follies and vices had wrought so much misery to others, and ended in such fearful ignominy and destruction to himself. We leave the smoky town, with all its fashion, vice, and villainy; its princely equipages; its prodigals; its paupers; its great men and its sycophants; its mountebanks and mendicants; its riches and its wretchedness. We leave that old city of strange compounds, where the sublime and the ridiculous, deep tragedies and most whimsical farces are ever minglingwhere magnificence and squalor rub shoulders day by day, and beggars sit upon the steps of palaces. How much of what is wonderful, wild, and awful, has not thy secret history known! How much of the romance of human act and passion, vicissitude, joy and sorrow, grandeur and despair, has there not lived, and moved, and perished, age after age, under thy perennial curtain of solemn smoke!
Far, far behind, we leave the sickly smoky townand over the far blue hills and wooded countrythrough rocky glens, and by sonorous streams, and over broad undulating plains, and through the quiet villages, with their humble thatched roofs from which curls up the light blue smoke among the sheltering bushes and tall hedge-rowsthrough ever-changing scenes of softest rural beauty, in day time and at eventide, and by the wan, misty moonlight, we follow the two travellers who ride toward the old domain of Ardgillagh.
The fourth day's journey brought them to the little village which formed one of the boundaries of that old place. But, long ere they reached it, the sun had gone down behind the distant hills, under his dusky canopy of crimson clouds, and the pale moon had thrown its broad light and shadows over the misty landscape. Under the soft splendour of the moon, chequered by the moving shadows of the tall and ancient trees, they rode into the humble villageno sound arose to greet them but the desultory baying of the village dogs, and the soft sighing of the light breeze through the spreading boughsand no signal of waking life was seen, except, few and far between, the red level beam of some still glowing turf fire, shining through the rude and narrow aperture that served the simple rustic instead of casement.
At one of these humble dwellings Larry Toole applied for
p.353information, and with ready courtesy the man of the house, in person, walked with them to the entrance of the place, and shoved open one of the valves of the crazy old gate, and O'Connor rode slowly in, following, with his best caution, the directions of his guide. His honest squire, Larry, meanwhile, loitered a little behind, in conference with the courteous peasant, and with the laudable intention of procuring some trifling refection, which, however, he determined to swallow without dismounting, and with all convenient dispatch, bearing in mind a wholesome remembrance of the disasters which followed his convivial indulgence in the little town of Chapelizod. While Larry thus loitered, O'Connor followed the wild winding avenue which formed the only approach to the old mansion. This rude track led him a devious way over slopes, and through hollows, and by the broad grey rocks, white as sheeted phantoms in the moonlight, and the thick weeds and brushwood glittering with the heavy dew of night, and through the beautiful misty vistas of the ancient wild wood, now still and solemn as old cathedral aisles. Thus, under the serene and cloudless light of the sailing moon, he had reached the bank of the broad and shallow brook whose shadowy nooks and gleaming eddies were canopied under the gnarled and arching boughs of the hoary thorn and oakand here tradition tells a marvellous tale.
It is narrated that when O'Connor reached this point, his jaded horse stopped short, refusing to cross the stream, and when urged by voice and spur, reared, snorted, and by every indication exhibited the extremest terror and an obstinate reluctance to pass the brook. The rider dismountedtook his steed by the head, patted and caressed him, and by every art endeavoured to induce him to traverse the little stream, but in vain; while thus fruitlessly employed, his attention was arrested by the sounds of a female voice, in low and singularly sweet and plaintive lamentation, and looking across the water, for the first time he beheld the object which so affrighted his steed. It was a female figure arrayed in a mantle of dusky red, the hood of which hung forward so as to hide the face and head: she was seated upon a broad grey rock by the brook's side, and her head leaned forward so as to rest upon her knees; her bare arm hung by her side, and the white fingers played listlessly in the clear waters of the brook, while with a wild and piteous chaunt, which grew louder and clearer as he gazed, she still sang on her strange mournful song. Spellbound and entranced, he knew not why, O'Connor gazed on in speechless and breathless awe, until at length the tall form arose and disappeared among the old trees, and the sounds melted away and were lost among the soft chiming of the brook, and heard no more. He dared not say whether it
p.354was reality or illusion, he felt like one suddenly recalled from a dream, and a certain awe, and horror, and dismay still hung upon him, for which he scarcely could account.
Without further resistance, the horse now crossed the brook; O'Connor remounted, and followed the shadowy track; but again he was destined to meet with interruption; the pathway which he followed, embowered among the branching trees and bushes, at one point wound beneath a low, ivy-mantled rock; he was turning this point, when his horse, snorting loudly, checked his pace with a recoil so sudden that he threw himself back upon his haunches, and remained, except for his violent trembling, fixed and motionless. O'Connor raised his eyes, and standing upon the rock which overhung the avenue, he beheld, for a moment, a tall female form clothed in an ample cloak of dusky red. The arms with the hands clasped, as if in the extremity of woe, firmly together, were extended above her head, the face white as the foam of the river, and the eyes preternaturally large and wild, were raised fixedly toward the broad bright moon; this phantom, for such it was, for a moment occupied his gaze, and in the next, with a scream so piercing and appalling that his very marrow seemed to freeze at the sound, she threw herself forward as though she would cast herself upon the horse and riderand, was gone.
The horse started wildly off and galloped at headlong speed up the broken ascent, and for some time O'Connor had not collectedness to check his frantic course, or even to think; at length, however, he succeeded in calming the terrified animaland, uttering a fervent prayer, he proceeded, without further adventure, till the tall gable of the old mansion in the spectral light of the moon among its thick embowering trees and rich ivy-mantles, with all its tall white chimney stacks and narrow windows with their thousand glittering panes, arose before his anxious gaze.