CHAPTER 2: THE THIEF
It was exactly nine months two days and ten hours later when Marie learned that her father was not a soup maker. She was sitting on a wall on the outskirts of the village, watching horses galloping in the sun, as polished and brown as chestnuts. Marie had decided long ago that she was going to be a horse when she grew up. Perched with her on the wall were Olivia and Sylvie, and the three sat so close together that Olivia’s jet black hair ran off her shoulder and intermingled with Marie’s red, whereas on Marie’s opposite side Sylvie’s nut brown tresses mixed with her own. Four feet further down the wall, in compliance with the unspoken rule, sat Bernadette-who-smelt-of-cack. It had often seemed a shame to Marie that Bernadette always had to keep a distance, which she did amicably and without bitterness, because on the whole she preferred Bernadette to the other two. Olivia could bully and be patronising, and Sylvie had a tendency to be sullen, but Bernadette was very sweet tempered and pleasant to be with.
Just not too closely.
Bernadette had long hair that was the colour of June wheat, but darkened by grime, as was her face, with tan coloured streaks and smears adorning her cheeks and forehead like war paint. However, underneath the muck there was a natural beauty to her features, and it was clear that in years to come she would grow up to be a very beautiful woman. Perhaps this was another reason for the raven haired Olivia’s hostility to Bernadette, because despite the fact that her father made more money than the fathers of the other three put together, despite her haughty arrogance and her self-convinced superiority, despite all that, nothing could change the fact that she had a face like a horse, an impression not helped by the fact that she was forever chewing a cud of her own black hair. As for Sylvie, she would have been the most beautiful of the four girls by far if she had ever bothered to twist her pale and delicate features out of the perpetual sour puss she seemed determined to subject the world to.
“What’s that?” said a voice, and Marie was surprised to realise that it was Bernadette, surprised because the pig farmer’s daughter rarely took the liberty of breaking a silence.
The other three turned their heads to look. They followed Bernadette’s gaze down the brown dirt path that led away from the village of St Anne, past green fields to an appointment with the blue horizon that fondly kissed its back on the place where the eye could go no further.
“What?” said Olivia rather sharply.
“Over there.” said Bernadette, brushing a strand of dirty blonde hair out of her face and pointing a chubby finger into the distance.
“I don’t see anything.” said Olivia, as if her pronouncement ended the matter then and there.
“Then you must be blind, stupid.” said Sylvie.
“Shut up, stupid!”
“You shut up, stupid!”
“You stupid shut up stupid!”
“Why don’t you stupid make me stupid? You can’t can you? Because you’re so stupid!”
Olivia chewed her hair furiously. Sylvie had always been the greatest threat to her leadership of the little group. Bernadette was the lowest of the low, easily controlled, and Marie didn’t seem to have problems with authority, but Olivia and Sylvie had been butting heads for as long as she could remember. At least since they were four. This new insult needed a considered response.
“You’re stupider.” said Sylvie, and her sour little features twisted into a vicious smile, much like a knife turning in a wound. Even Marie and Bernadette, who had not really been paying attention, spun around at this new insult. This was uncharted territory. How would Olivia come back from that? Olivia was munching hair with a rapidity that made Marie stop thinking of a horse, and remind her more of the rabbit with its furious nibbling. Olivia was becoming desperate, her authority hung on a knife’s edge and she knew it. Finally she blurted out:
“My father’s very, very rich!”
The smug look plastered on Sylvie’s pale features indicated that she was not impressed.
Oddly enough, it was Bernadette who came to Olivia’s rescue.
“It’s getting closer.” she remarked matter-of-factly, and once again four pairs of eyes were riveted on the horizon.
Even Olivia could see it now, a dark formless shape in the distance, like a speck of mould growing on the horizon.
“Maybe it’s the black dog.” said Marie mischievously.
The black dog had been the result of a night when she had rather foolishly asked her father to tell her a scary story after which, much to his chagrin, she had been unable to sleep for three nights. Marie had of course passed on the story to her friends, who in turn had suffered many sleepless nights of their own. Marie had gotten over her fear of the story, and would sometimes ask her father to tell it again (he always refused, never having gotten over the guilt he felt first time around) but even in the bright sunshine an involuntary shudder ran through the backs of Olivia, Sylvie and Bernadette at the mention of the black dog.
“It’s not.” said Bernadette, as if it had ever been a real possibility “It’s people.”
And it was. They could make out figures now, swarming and tiny like brown aphids. There were a good deal of them, maybe as many as thirty, but they seemed to be bunched tightly around a core in the centre. And now, across the still, windless summer air the four girls could hear the sounds of ruckus, shouting, swearing, and nasty, jeering laughter. A small nugget of unease had formed
in the stomach of each of the four girls. With every meter that the distance between them shrunk, the noise became louder, and they could feel anger in the air like heavy thunder. Bernadette unconsciously reached out her hand to take Marie’s, but she was too far away, and the hand lay limply on the stony wall, unused.
The crowd was getting closer, and Marie could pick out a face she recognised here and there in the soup of bodies. They were men from the village, shop keepers, craftsmen, men her father drank with in the brown tavern, its floor soaked with ale and smelling of sawdust and pine. She knew these men.
So why was she afraid?
By the time the mob passed them by, all four girls were hiding behind the wall, peeping out through large egg-shaped gaps in the dry stones. They cowered there, as the hissing, yelling, screaming, jeering mad thing roared past like a hurricane. Olivia and Sylvie had actually buried their faces in their knees and were trembling. Peering through the gap Marie saw that the mob had a core. Standing in its centre was a man who towered head and shoulders above the rest, with massive broad arms and a great beard and long hair that reminded Marie of her father. But this man’s hair was jet black and coarse, and his dark face marked him as a man from the south of the country. His great arms were bound with thick sailor’s rope, his hair and beard specked with white globs of spittle. And it occurred to Marie that every harsh word, every barking shout, every leering laugh, that the mob uttered was directed into its core, to this man. Then, with a horrible suddenness, one man, who Marie recognised as the village shoemaker, Monsieur Provais, landed a blow on the dark man’s jaw. The crunch of bone on bone was loud enough to cause ringing in Marie’s ear and she looked in horror as the prisoner’s head jack knifed back from the force of the blow and for a second Marie was looking straight into his eyes. They were blue like her father’s and like his they burned when they were angry. But she had never seen her father as angry as this man was now. The dark haired giant bared teeth that were slick and red from the blow, his eyes blazed with wrath and he roared a curse at his attacker, barked it loud and sharp, answering the pitch of bone on bone. The throbbing mob passed by the place where the four spies hid in terror. The shouting men and their persecuted captive moved on, trailing behind them a gaggle of raggedy urchins who shouted jeers and insults at the black haired man with the impunity of crowing roosters at dawn, knowing that he could not hurt them. With the danger passed, the fear in their chests became pride at having survived such an ordeal. Olivia was the first to peep over the top of the wall. And then she did something which at the time Marie couldn’t comprehend. She began to shout after the captured man, repeating the words that the urchins had been calling.
“Thief! Thief! Thief!” she shouted, in a high, noxious sing-song. Now Sylvie was up and following suit. One was an oddity, but two was a consensus and without thinking Marie was on her feet and calling after the man who only three seconds ago she had gently pitied. Only Bernadette remained silent. Olivia was over the wall now, following after the mob, catching up to its tail of urchins and shouting out at the top of her longs. Sylvie and Marie ran after her, with Bernadette slowly following behind them in silence, maybe to keep her distance in accordance with the unwritten rule. Maybe because she didn’t want to be near them.
Keeping pace beside her Marie saw a small boy who looked around four, but was probably older and simply stunted by lack of food. He wore a great brown scab on the bridge of his nose, and when he smiled the first five teeth were missing.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Thief!” he replied triumphantly “Caught him in a barn. Gonna string him up!”
“String him up?” Marie said, confused.
“Yes. You know.” said the boy, and he mimed being strangled, his tongue lolling grotesquely out of his mouth, his eyes crossing bizarrely and the most horrible choking noises churning out of his small throat.
Marie did not understand and looked up ahead where she could plainly see the Thief’s black head against the blue sky, and in the strong summer light she could see a clump of his hair had been drenched in blood and become as hard as rock, and as red as port.
The chanting, jeering mob led the Thief into the main square of St Anne’s and by that time the size of the crowd had quadrupled. You would have thought that this Thief was the most hated man in the world from the way they spat and hissed and jeered, and he received many more blows and had cursed many more tormentors before finally coming to a stop in front of a gallows that had been raised with chilling speed in the centre of the square.
Marie did not recognise the tall wooden structure, but the strong rope with a loop swinging from the overhead beam reminded her of a swing, and she did not feel at all intimidated by it.
The Thief was manhandled up the steps of the gallows and made to stand before the venomous crowd, totally exposed to their blistering malice. Someone, until the day she died she would never know who, pressed a small, hard, smooth stone into her hand, and before she knew what was happening she had flung it at the Thief along with many others in the crowd. Her throw was weak and the pebble bounced harmlessly between his bare feet, hairy, large and with a massive green-yellow claw capping each big toe. Other stones, however, found their mark, and the Thief, unable to raise his bound hands to shield himself was gashed over the left eyebrow, the wound bubbling crimson. Others struck, leaving large purple weals on his face as they hit.
He screamed abuse at them, calling them scum dogs, gutter drinkers, pus suckers and any name his battered and bruised brain could conjure up but this only spurred more shouting, more throwing, more hatred from the crowd. Then suddenly, there was silence. The Thief was no longer alone on the gallows. There stood by him a man who looked like a scarecrow, he was so thin. He had a nose shaped like a parrot’s beak and his eyes were massive, great sickly-light green orbs which glimmered in the darkness of his deep set sockets. He was bald save for a lank white wreath around the rim of his skull. His fingers, massively long and pale on the hands of another man, seemed minuscule when he folded them under the chin of his cavernous head, as was his habit. This, as everyone in that crowd knew full well, was Monsieur Nogaret, the town magistrate, the hand of justice and the voice of the law, who kept order in the small village through a perfectly balanced compound of loathing and fear.
He raised his hand and addressed the crowd, even though the words themselves were directed at the unfortunate Thief.
“Robért Hieronimo,” and his voice creaked and rasped like a ghoul “you have been found guilty of thievery, murder and skulduggery. It has been decided that your wicked life shall be ended and that you shall be hung from the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.” this last part was spoken as if it was a mere formality, and not with any sincerity.
The Thief, whose mouth was swollen from the numerous blows he had received, replied something to the effect that they could all burn in Hell.
“Hangman!” Nogaret called.
And then Marie saw him. A massive figure, clothed in black, his face covered in that mask which would give her nightmares for the nest of her life. Even then, not fully understanding what was happening (Nogaret’s speech had largely gone over her head) the sight of that huge, hulking phantom approaching the gallows made her sick with terror.
The next part happened horribly quickly.
The noose was placed around the neck of Hieronimo the Thief.
Marie still did not now what was going to happen.
The hangman placed both his hands on the lever and braced to pull.
Still she had no clue.
Hieronimo’s last words were “Oh God, wait…”
The lever was pulled.
A living man fell three inches, a corpse finished the journey.
And it was as Marie watched the hideous jerking, swinging, thing that had been the man she had thrown stones at and jeered that she realised that the hangman was staring straight at her. The holes in the mask cast shadows over his eyes, making them invisible to her so that all she could see were those empty black spaces staring directly at her over the heads of the now cheering and whooping crowd.
Marie was six years old, and had just seen her first hanging. Today would ensure that she would never see another. Everything around her, the still swinging body of the thief, the callous cheering of the crowd, the memory of the thief’s last words and perhaps most of all, the hangman’s stare on her all rolled into a single weight and bore down on her. She opened her guts, and was violently sick.