New Excerpt: The Sign of the Gallows by Susanna Calkins
By Crime HQFebruary 2, 2021
The north-western road to St Giles-in-the-Fields was darker and more desolate than Lucy Campion remembered. She shifted her peddler’s pack, full of True Accounts and Strange News, her shoulders aching under the familiar strain. She’d taken the longer path to avoid the outskirts of Covent Garden since it still teemed with people displaced by the previous year’s Great Fire. Now she was beginning to regret that decision.
‘Why sell at this market?’ she muttered out loud, despite being warned about her habit of talking to herself. She continued trudging along the old cow path carved out through thick forest, patches of fog obscuring the hundred yards ahead of her and behind. The fire had not spread this far west, and the trees that surrounded her were dense and old. Although the trees helped block the wind, the occasional icy gale still sliced through her thin woollen cloak and dress. At least the earlier snowflakes had melted already, leaving the path muddy but not so wet as to soak through her pointed leather shoes.
This morning, at Master Aubrey’s request, she was heading to ply their trade at a new market along the northern edge of Westminster, an unlicensed gathering of merchants that had sprung up a few months ago. She’d brought some pieces they’d recently printed in the workshop, mainly tracts detailing the Earl of Clarendon’s latest treachery against King and Parliament, though she’d tucked in a few murder ballads and recipes since they always sold well in crowds. So far, she’d encountered only a few merchants here and there, on their way back and forth to London, hawking their wares.
She stopped for a moment, trying to get her bearings. Probably a few hundred yards from the crossroads with the old hanging tree. A long time ago, local villagers would hang murderers, witches and other miscreants from the old oak tree there, before such executions moved to the Tyburn Tree. Suicides still found their way, though, committing their most desperate act, knowing they could not be buried in a church’s sacred ground. Poor families and relatives of criminals might bury their dead here too, if they could not pay for a proper church burial.
Lucy sighed. She’d forgotten about the hanging tree when she chose this path. As a child, she’d learned to pass the crossroads quickly, her mother warning her about ghosts that lingered there. They’re waiting to latch on to a weak-willed mind. A ghost will catch hold of your skirts and follow you home! There they will stay, tormenting you all your days, causing mischief and filling you with melancholia until you die and suffer the same fate as them.
Her steps slowed even as her heart beat faster. Shall I turn back? she wondered, coming to a full stop. Every click in the woods, every animal rustling, every shadow in the trees was bringing her to a state of high alert. For a moment she stood there, listening to the sounds around her, the thumping in her chest and the shallowness of her breath resounding in her ears.
Then she slapped her forehead. ‘Such nonsense you spew, Lucy Campion,’ she said. ‘What would Master Hargrave say of your foolishness?’ Thinking about the magistrate, whom she’d served for several years as a servant before becoming a printer’s assistant, began to steady and calm her. She continued to admonish herself silently. He’d say that your imagination is tricking you! He’d tell you that more often than not there is a scientific and rational cause for magicked happenings and strange tales. He would certainly say that there is nothing to fear at the crossroads.
Thus restored, Lucy stoutly moved forward. It was then that she heard a cart moving rapidly ahead of her, though the fog was still too thick to make it out. She stood aside to let the cart pass her by on the narrow muddy lane. At the sound of men shouting, she knew something was amiss.
Out of the mist, two men came racing towards her, pushing a wildly careening wooden handcart in front of them.
‘Good heavens!’ Lucy cried. ‘What is amiss?’
One of the men was looking over his shoulder, as if they were being pursued by something dangerous. A highwayman? A ghost?
Seeing her, one of the men stopped short, releasing his hold on the handle, confusing the man who’d been looking behind. The abruptness of his action caused the man to stumble and send the handcart veering towards her.
Without thinking, Lucy tried to lunge out of the way of the cart. At the same time, the other man, in an effort to stabilize the cart, ended up pushing it directly into her path. The cart caught her in her lower limbs, and her pack flew from her shoulder as she flung up her arms. Unable to catch herself, Lucy fell straight backwards, smashing her back and head on to the ground. The breath was knocked right out of her, and for a moment everything went dark.
‘What the—’ she heard one of the men exclaim. ‘Why’d she do that?’
Blinking, Lucy looked up only to find the two men staring down at her, a similar chilling expression in their dark brown eyes. They looked alike – most likely brothers or cousins. Probably in their later twenties or early thirties. One of the men was clean-shaven, but on his neck she could see a swirling tattoo of some sort of fierce animal, marking him as a sailor or convict. The other man had a neat light-haired moustache and dark russet hair.
The more the men stared at her, the more uneasy Lucy grew. Why hadn’t they left yet? Both men looked burly and strong – labourers, possibly tradesmen. Her pocket was well hidden under her skirts and contained only a few coins to provide a bit of change as needed. But none of that mattered if they had ill intentions towards her person.
‘What do we have here?’ the clean-shaven man asked, looking her over.
What should I do? Where should I go? Lucy cast about wildly. The trees on both sides were dense and fearful, and she knew her skirts would catch and trip her if she ran. Her limbs suddenly felt heavy, and her feet became anchored to the ground. Why can’t I move? Her sense of panic grew. Run! she told herself. Run! Still she couldn’t move.
Then she saw that the man was looking down at one of her tracts. Some of the penny press from her pack scattered and began to blow about in the rising wind. Picking it up, he read the first part of the title with ease. ‘A True Account of a most barbarous monster …’ He stared down at her. ‘What kind of peddler are you?’
Still trying to catch her breath, Lucy just waved futilely towards her pack.
‘Bookseller,’ the moustached man said, guessing correctly.
Lucy slumped back, her heart to her chest, wheezing. Try as she might, she could not draw breath back into her lungs. Still fearful of the men’s intent, she began to scramble backwards, her skirts catching in her shoes.
‘Now where are you going?’ the moustached man asked. ‘We’re not done talking.’
‘Leave her alone,’ said the man with the tattoo, crumpling up the tract and tossing it over his shoulder. ‘Pike, we must go.’
Moving past her, the man who’d been called Pike gave her a mocking glance. ‘Stay out of our way next time, would you?’
Thankfully, the men sauntered off, continuing southward along the dirt lane. Whatever had unnerved them earlier appeared to have subsided, and they appeared deep in conversation. Still hunched on the ground, Lucy watched them go, her hand on her chest, trying to breathe.
Fortunately, the cold air flooded back into her lungs and she gulped it in as if she’d been drowning. She struggled to sort herself out, and to her annoyance she found that she was trembling. Then indignation and anger filled her as well. Why did they rush at me that way? ‘Didn’t even check to see if I was hurt,’ she grumbled as she began to brush herself off. ‘A pox upon them both.’
Only when a white paper blew by her did she snap back to attention. ‘Oh no!’ she cried. Pulling herself up on shaky legs, she began to retrieve the pamphlets and broadsides that had blown out of her pack, hoping none were destroyed. The wet ones she might be able to dry off and still sell, but those that had got bogged down in the slick mud would be hopeless. Master Aubrey wouldn’t be pleased when he saw the ruined pieces. ‘I’ll get a scolding for sure.’
Experience had taught her that there was no use explaining to Master Aubrey that the poor state of the printed pieces was not her fault. He expected her to take care of their stock at all costs, protecting their tracts and pamphlets as if they were made of precious metal, instead of their true flimsy and ephemeral nature. Fortunately, he did not box her ears as he would his apprentice Lach.
Unlike Lach, she’d never been Master Aubrey’s true apprentice. The Stationers’ Company still had strict standards on who could be apprenticed, but since the calamitous years of plague and Great Fire, everything had been disrupted. She’d been able to seize opportunities that she’d never expected, and she hoped to learn as much as she could before the world returned to its senses and strict guild rules were once again enforced.
Besides, she certainly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Master Aubrey. Having been with him for over a year, she’d hoped to write more pieces for him and to be given more responsibilities at the shop. She looked sadly down at the tracts that were a bit soggy from their time on the damp winter ground. Carefully, she slid them back into her pack. Maybe I can still find a way to sell some of these. Murder, at least, always sells.
Continuing on, Lucy limped towards the crossroads, keenly feeling the bruising impact of the collision. Her head and back hurt from the fall, as did her legs where the cart had struck her. Perhaps there’d be some healing medicines to be had when she reached the market. Why had those men been running? What had they been running from?
Then the mist cleared, and Lucy stopped, the answer to her question taking form. ‘Oh,’ she exclaimed, putting her hand to her heart. Her pack slid from her shoulder, landing on the ground with a small thud.
There, dangling from the hanging tree, was a man’s body.
She just stared at the corpse, suspended about two feet in the air. She found herself focusing on the man’s torso, unable to look up at his face. He was clad in a tradesman’s hearty grey wool coat and breeches, and his boots were of a durable and expensive leather. This was no doubt what had frightened those men so. ‘Say a prayer, say a prayer,’ she admonished herself, before quickly muttering a few words that were half charm and half an offering to the Lord.
Although she wanted to hurry past the terrible sight and continue on to the market beyond, Lucy could not help but study the body a bit more. There was something odd about the corpse. It seemed to lack the rigidity of death and not a single fly, rat or crow had discovered it yet. Indeed, it reminded her of the freshly dead criminals who’d been hanged at the Tyburn Tree, which she’d witnessed first-hand several times, having been sent by Master Aubrey to sell murder ballads and last dying speeches to the crowds gathered at the public spectacle.
Mustering all her courage, she reached up and pushed the man’s foot, feeling her stomach heave as the body swayed at her touch. A quick glance at the man’s face showed that he also lacked the waxy pallor and decay of most corpses: it was mottled and spittle still dripped from his mouth. Indeed, except for the grotesque angle of the way his head lolled against his chest, he looked almost as if he might have been asleep.
She sniffed. The stench of death was not yet upon him either, although she caught the faint smell of wine. ‘He couldn’t have been dead very long,’ she said, stepping back, continuing to regard the body. ‘He must have been drinking before he died, poor sot.’
Unlike those pitiful souls executed at Tyburn, this man’s hands and legs hung free, not tied or bound in any way. Certainly, there were no weights on his feet, which prisoners could pay for to hasten their deaths. From her knowledge of the public hangings, it might take a man twenty minutes or more to succumb to the rope, unless he had paid someone to pull on his legs to help death along and end his earthly suffering. Not a peaceful death. Lucy sighed. A suicide to be sure, and a recent one at that.
A small step stool under the body confirmed that point. It had been kicked over. Closing her eyes, Lucy imagined the bitter scene. The man must have stood on the stool to first loop the rope around the tree branch and then, after placing the noose around his neck, kicked over the stool to ensure that his desperate act was realized.
‘Who were you?’ she said to the corpse. She touched the man’s hand, which still had the slightest bit of warmth to it. Grimacing, she drew her hand away. ‘What drove you to such a state? What dreadful melancholia overcame you, to take such an action?’
She looked around. Such a forlorn spot. Perhaps he’d hoped to be buried here as well. Maybe he’d been concerned about his soul tormenting his family. Maybe he’d hoped to keep his act hidden. Except, shouldn’t his family know? Wouldn’t they wonder what had happened to him? Should I tell someone? Being friendly with the magistrate as well as the local constable made her keenly aware that such an unnatural death needed to be reported to the London authorities.
Her attention was distracted by something hanging from the man’s broken neck. Peering up at it, she could see it was an ornately carved and expensive-looking gold ring hanging on a silver chain. Standing on her tiptoes, she tried in vain to look more closely at the ring, which was still about a foot above her head. I’d wager that ring could help identify him. A tear unexpectedly appeared in her eye. Not if someone steals it from him, though.
‘The truth must be out,’ she declared, righting the stool. ‘Your loved ones must be told where you are. Otherwise the authorities will just cut you down and throw you in the potter’s field, if they don’t just bury you here.’
Stepping on to the stool, she was now at eye level with the man’s chest. She couldn’t bring herself to look up at his face, so she looked at his heart instead. ‘Maybe you had no one to care for you – maybe that is why you brought this dreadful plight upon yourself. But I imagine that someone will be looking for you and wondering what might have happened. This news, though tragic, may be helpful.’ She looked at the man. ‘What do you think?’
The corpse swayed slightly in the breeze, almost as if the man were agreeing with her. She took that as a sign to continue. Looking around, she quickly unclasped the chain with the ring, removing it from around his neck. As she jumped down from the stool, sudden misgivings came over her. What if someone takes me to be a common thief? There were hefty penalties for being caught stealing from corpses, from a spell in the stocks to time spent in jail. She sucked in her breath. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Just then, she heard voices coming from the direction she had travelled. Picking her pack from the ground, she ran into the copse of trees on the other side of the lane, her heart beating furiously as she peered out through the leafless branches.
To her surprise, the two men who’d knocked her down earlier had appeared, now dragging their handcart behind them. Why did they come back this way? she wondered, starting to tremble. As she watched, the men went to stand before the corpse. The one named Pike tapped on the man’s boots. ‘Like I told you, Dev,’ he said. ‘Seems foolish to leave all this to thieves.’
‘I could have told you that,’ Dev grumbled. ‘You’re the one who took fright. Go ahead and take his boots. Should bring a bit of silver.’
Pike complied, yanking at the man’s boots without bothering to unbuckle them. ‘Leather’s hardly worn at all. Don’t even need new soles.’ He threw them in the handcart. ‘Why don’t you check his pockets, Dev. This here was a man of means.’
For some reason, both men laughed. Dev poked the man’s jacket, withdrawing a timepiece and a pocket with a grin. ‘I thought he might have something like this on him.’ He looked inside the pocket. ‘A few coins as well.’ Tucking both items into his coat, he patted the man’s stomach. ‘Thank you kindly, good sir. Anything else you’d like to offer us?’
As Pike laughed, Dev straightened up abruptly and stepped back, an odd expression stretching across his face. ‘Say, Pike, I thought you knocked that stool over before we left.’
Lucy sucked in her breath. What did he mean by that? Why would Pike have knocked the stool over? Her mind began to reel. Had Pike and Dev helped the man commit suicide? Helped him die? Such a thing went against the Lord’s will and was viewed as akin to committing murder.
Pike looked down at the stool. ‘That’s true. I did.’ Then he looked up at the dead man’s face, studying him. ‘Something else is peculiar, too. Something is missing.’ Then he snapped his fingers. ‘Hey, what about the ring that was around his neck? Could it have fallen off?’
Hidden behind the trees, Lucy froze. The ring Pike was referring to was in the pocket she kept fastened beneath her skirts. What if they come looking for it? Dev’s next sentence confirmed her mounting sense of panic.
‘Nah, I think someone took it.’ Dev began to tap his fingers on the handcart’s handle. ‘Someone who needed to stand on that stool.’
They looked at each other. ‘The book peddler!’ they exclaimed in unison.
Dev nodded. ‘She was heading this way when we left her. We haven’t seen anyone else on the road since then.’
‘That’s right!’ Pike replied. ‘Shall we go after her?’
Lucy didn’t catch what Dev said next, but the lewdness behind Pike’s guffaws caused her cheeks to burn and her legs to tremble in earnest. She pressed against the tree, praying that she would not collapse. They would certainly hear her if they did.
‘She was scared witless already,’ Pike said. ‘She’s probably halfway to the next town by now, she was so afeared. We couldn’t catch her even if we wanted to. Let’s go.’
The men left then, continuing back down the path in the direction she’d encountered them earlier. ‘What should I do?’ Lucy asked herself, once she had regained her composure. ‘I think I need to inform Constable Duncan about this body and give him the ring. Master Aubrey will be upset, I know, but my conscience tells me I need to do this.’ Her chuckle was feeble. ‘Besides, maybe I can write this as a true tale.’
Copyright © 2021 by Susanna Calkins.
About The Sign of the Gallows by Susanna Calkins:
London, 1667. On her way to a new market to peddle her True Accounts and Strange News, printer’s apprentice Lucy Campion quickly regrets her decision to take the northwestern road. Dark and desolate, the path leads her to the crossroads—and to the old hanging tree. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she’s not sure ghosts don’t believe in her.
But before she even reaches the crossroads, she’s knocked off her feet by two men in a hurry. What were they running from? To her dismay, she soon discovers for herself: there, dangling from the tree, is the body of a man.
Did he commit self-murder, or is there something darker afoot? The more Lucy learns, the more determined she is to uncover the truth. But this time, even the help and protection of magistrate’s son Adam, and steadfast Constable Duncan, may not be enough to keep her safe from harm . . .