Posted on 2010-10-31
This was an example of how the love of a good woman could be the ruin of a man, Frank Churchill thought. Then there was a sharp drop, and then … nothing more.
The crowd gathered at the gallows to witness the hanging went home, satisfied with the spectacle. It had been highly entertaining it was generally agreed on among the onlookers. The man who'd brutally murdered his aunt had died rather well. He'd been everything the audience of such a gruesome event could have wished for – young, handsome, pleasant-spoken and fashionably dressed. It was almost a pity that such a fine specimen of a man should be left on the gallows to rot.
Besides he had not committed the murder for gain. This was what he'd said in his dying speech at any rate. He'd done it for love – his aunt would never have given her consent to his marriage, he'd said, and he'd been desperate. A man who'd literally do anything for his sweetheart could count on public sympathy at the very least.
There were those who said that Frank Churchill should not have fallen in love with a young woman of whom his aunt could not approve, but they were a minority. There were others – especially among those who'd been acquainted with Mr Churchill's victim – who said that she'd had it coming to her. Mrs Churchill, who'd kept a tight hold on the purse strings, who'd held both her husband and nephew on a short rein, who'd insisted on having things her own way at all times, who'd terrorised them with her frequent bouts of illness whenever they showed the slightest reluctance to comply with one of her wishes … her death had been a relief to all who knew her. That her nephew had helped her on her way was not altogether surprising, and if he'd chosen a different means it was probable that no awkward questions would have been asked. But the deadly cobra in Mrs Churchill's chamber pot, however effective, had been a mistake. Had they lived in Calcutta and not in Richmond, Mr Churchill would, in all likelihood, have escaped detection. But deadly cobras were rare in England, and their owners could be easily tracked. So now, instead of dancing at his wedding, which was what a young man of Mr Churchill's age should be doing, he'd been put to bed with a ladder. A sad ending to a promising career.
By and by, everyone left, and only the wind remained, gently swinging the body of Frank Churchill to and fro. It grew dark, and nothing but the light of a pale full moon lit the scenery. It was not the time when anyone in their right mind would choose to come near the gallows, but shortly after eleven o'clock a female figure wrapped in a black cloak crept up close to the gallows. She stopped and looked up to the corpse.
"You should have left it to me," she said. "Whoever heard of cobras in England, for heaven's sake? But you've never been one to ask for my advice, have you? And now here we both are!"
She slid her hand in her pocket and took out something tiny and gleaming – a ring. She slid it on the corpse's finger, saying, "I will have this man to be my husband. I will love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as I shall live. - There now, this is as close to a wedding as ever I'll get. Goodbye, Frank."
Hurriedly, the lady left the eerie place and directed her steps towards the little town in the distance. Again, all was quiet on Gallows Hill. Although, not quite...
At first, Jane Fairfax did not know what had woken her. She sat up in her bed, and looked across the room at her aunt's sleeping form. There was nothing short of a cannon fired right next to her pillow that could wake Miss Bates once she'd gone to sleep, Jane had found out early during her stay in Highbury – a highly convenient fact that she'd put to good use whenever she'd slipped out of her bed at night to meet Frank at the old water mill just outside Highbury for a few stolen hours together before they had to go back to pretending that they meant nothing to each other. And tonight, when she'd secretly gone to the gallows with the ridiculous notion of "marrying" Frank, knowing that she'd never marry another.
Click. Click. Click. It took Jane a few moments to realise that someone was throwing pebbles at her bedroom window. She hesitated – she'd been through a great deal of harrassment lately; people whom she did not even know walked up to her in the street and called her a murderess or worse, taking their anger at the murder of Mrs Churchill out on her because they had no access to Frank, who was safely locked up in Newgate Prison.
"Jane!" She did not recognise the hoarse voice calling out to her, but decided to pull the curtain aside – just enough to let her catch a glimpse of whoever it was that wanted to speak to her at such an ungodly hour of the night.
"Jane!" There was some urgency in that whisper. Jane got out of bed and walked to the window, pulled the curtain aside and peeked out. With a gasp, she let go of the curtain, hurried back to her bed, jumped in and pulled the duvet over her head. Outside in the courtyard of the inn, looking up at her bedroom window, was Frank, the rope still hanging round his neck.
"Jane! Come to me!"
For a moment Jane wondered whether Frank had somehow survived his execution. But even while the thought occurred to her she dismissed it – the man she'd found at the gallows had been as dead as a doornail. Besides, she'd had no doubt that the corpse on the gallows had been Frank Churchill. In the moonlight she'd been able to see his face – which, to be honest, had not been as handsome as it had been in his lifetime thanks to the hangman's lack of skill – and his waistcoat, which was one he'd worn often because it suited him so well.
"Jane, if you don't come out this moment I'll go up and find you! Shall I?"
Frantically, Jane considered her options. She could try and hide in her bed, but she feared that a mere door was nothing to hold a dead man back from going exactly where he chose to go. Or she could go outside and face him and see what he wanted. It was only a dream anyway, she argued. It had to be.
She put on her dressing gown and tiptoed out of the room, down the stairs and outside into the courtyard.
"Here I am," she said. "Now what do you want at this time of the night?"
Frank turned away from her window and slowly walked up to her. "I've come to get my wife," he said.
"But... but you're dead!" Jane protested.
"I was dead when you married me but that didn't seem to stop you," he pointed out. "This was what brought me back. And now here I am."
"Oh dear," Jane sighed. "What are we to do now?"
Frank grinned. "I've a couple of suggestions to make," he said. "But your aunt is in your room, isn't she?"
"Y... yes. I am afraid so."
"We'll just have to find a place of our own then. Does the innkeeper object to undead customers?"
"He might," Jane said. "To be honest I don't want to find out if he does."
"We'll hire a house somewhere then."
"But not tonight," Jane said. "No one's going to open their door to us at this hour. Not with you looking the way you do, if you don't mind my saying so."
"You've got a point." He handed her a bag of money. "Go in search of suitable lodgings for us tomorrow and I'll join you wherever you are tomorrow night. Never mind where. I'll find you anywhere."
"You married me, didn't you? As long as I shall live, you said. I know you did. I was there. So here I am now, and I can't leave this world any more until you do. You won't be rid of me till you're dead and buried, Jane."
"Oh! I didn't know that!" No one had told her that, by marrying a dead man, she was giving up her own life. Somebody ought to have warned her.
"I won't harm you," Frank whispered with a certain touch of exasperation in his voice. "But I'll have to live with you. Sort of. Until you die. Those are the rules. I, for one, have no objection to make. It's not quite what I wanted but it's better than nothing."
Jane nodded. She'd married him, and now she had to go through with it. "I'll find a house," she promised. "Somewhere … somewhere a little out of the way, perhaps."
"You might as well. It will become a bit smelly around me for the first couple of months or so. I don't want our neighbours to complain."
Jane preferred not to think of that possibility just yet. Nor did she want to reflect on the effect the presence of a skeletal husband in her house, no matter how lively a skeleton he was, was going to have on her social life. She'd made her bed; now she had to lie in it.
The marriage of Frank and Jane Churchill was one of the longest ever recorded in the village of Highbury. It lasted all of sixty-five years, and both Mr and Mrs Churchill were buried on the very same day.The End