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Rope

(c. 1929)

by Charles MacArthur


Chapter III.

Stovich’s heart sang within him as he drew near the jail, walking on the heel and ball of each foot. For the first time in four years he smiled at the policeman guarding the jail door and wished the turnkey a jovial good morning. Joy mounted to the pitch of ecstasy, so that when he saw the hated Ernest, author and finisher of all his tribulations, he could hardly refrain from surprising him with the glad good news. Only the realization that the announcement would bring a pain to his rival more keen than his own unspeakable joy caused him to hold his peace, even when Ernest provoked him with an unusually surly greeting.

“Well, Sap! Yah finally got here, did ya?”

“Why, what’s eatin’ you?” inquired Stovich, nettled more by his tone than his use of the hated name.

“You’ll find out when the boss sees yah, “ replied Ernest. “Don’t yah know, we’re making it an hour ahead of time today?”

Stovich soon discovered this circumstance to be true. The editor of the morning Herald had estimated that he could put on 10,000 extra city circulations if the three men could be conveniently hanged before the last deadline of the paper. He had communicated this fact to the sheriff, who was more or less obligated to the Herald for his job. Consequently, the time of the executions had been advanced one hour to meet the emergency. It is true the victims uttered some complaint at this arrangement, but they were told that daylight-saving time had been declared during the night.

A dozen reporters were already on the scene. They were impatient. Stovich had no time to lose. Hurriedly, he visited the death chamber and tested the ropes with large bags of sand, equal to the weight of each intended victim. Ernest grudgingly helped him in deference to the growing lack of time, and presently the paraphernalia was ready. The ropes were new and yellow and strong. The trap worked like a charm. Stovich removed the sand bags and reported to the sheriff that two of the doomed men could come and get their medicine.

The bartenders, alderman, baseball writers, professional athletes, doctors, and reporters who had been ordained to witness the spectacle now presented their tickets and flocked into the death chamber, making a dive for the good seats. Good-natured confusion ensued.

Much loud prophecy on the part of the veterans to the effect that the stomachs of the newcomers would not be equal to the exhibition. Much stout denial on the part of the newcomers. More banter of the same sort floated about the long, bare, whitewashed room from the rows of benches that marched back from the stage-like scaffold to the furthermost brick wall. The hubbub was added to by a professional bondsman, slightly stewed, who knocked a turnkey unconscious for suggesting that he remove his hat and cigar. Stovich was well pleased at this diversion. The turnkey was one of his most inveterate persecutors, and he only wished he had done the hitting.

The tumult increased when a prominent prizefighter appeared at the iron gate as escort to a couple of women which whom he had been drinking the night through in anticipation of the morning’s entertainment. The turnkeys by this time were thoroughly incensed at the treatment they were getting and massed to throw the tipsy trio out of doors. Loud recriminations issued from all the combatants and partisan cheers arose from the crowd.

The turmoil was such that the sheriff, who had been reading the death warrants to the doomed, came flying downstairs to investigate. A heated discussion followed. The pugilist’s lady friends were thrown out and he was admitted to the death chamber on his promise of good behavior, following the warm personal endorsement of Alderman Twombley and assurances from the crowd that he was a hell of a swell fellow when he was sober.

Matters were now in readiness.

The sheriff finished reading the death warrants and presently appeared on the scaffold with the warden. He teetered for a time on his toes, nodded to a dozen or so of his friends, and addressed a few by their first names. Evidently he had been playing poker with them the night before, as not a few took occasion to rail pleasantly of marked cards and the advisability of hanging the sheriff instead of the intended victims. The sheriff silenced this criticism with a majestic wave of his hand as the shuffle of feet and the sound of voices drifted down the upper corridor into the death chamber.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life ...”

The strong intonation of the prison chaplain was repeated in faltering echoes by the doomed.

“He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live ...” Sing-song echoes, drawing nearer.

By the use of vigorous pantomime, the sheriff exhorted the audience to refrain from conversation and to extinguish cigars and cigarettes. It was futile. Desperately, he jerked his thumb in the direction of the rising voices of the dead-marchers. The spectators advised him to go back and sit down. His gestures became pleading. He cajoled them with winks and scowls and frowns. They told him to go and soak his head.

“And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die ...”

The mortuary procession appeared upon the scaffold. First the chaplain in a shiny Prince Albert coat, affecting to read from a little book the passage he had cause to know backward and by heart. Then two of the murderers, manacled and supported by four guards. They shuffled mechanically forward, repeating the minister’s words with blue lips and dry and swollen tongues.

Still mumbling the ritual, each was led to the trap. Stovich and Ernest deftly substituted leather straps for their manacles and enveloped them with shrouds.

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want ...”

With the rhythmic unison of a trained acrobatic team, Stovich and his partner fetched the ropes from the cross-trees of the scaffold. Quickly they drew each noose about its destined neck. One of the men made a frightful grimace, sticking his tongue out as far as it would go, rolling his eyes inward. The other’s knees sagged horribly, but both recovered themselves and continued to recite the ritual as gallantly as possible. One even smiled a little, causing the dean of the hanging reporters to scribble a memo that “he died as cowards of his stripe always die -- with a cheap effort at bravado”. That was good stuff and had the advantage of being moral as well. The reporter had used it for each of the thirty-two hangings he had attended.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters ...”

Stovich adjusted the muslin masks and stepped back, as the holy clerk galloped into the Psalm of David. The electric button was fixed to the scaffold rail. It had been agreed that when the recitation reached: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life ...” he would press it and release the strap.

The crowd caught its breath as the stiff stance of the sheriff and his aides indicated the end was at hand. Stovich nervously fondled the button to see if it was still in place. The condemned creatures shuffled their feet nervously, expectantly, as one who is about to take a five-thousand-foot dive ...

Cries rang down the steel corridor outside the chamber of death.

“Sheriff! Oh, sheriff!”

Guards burst into the room:

“Governor’s on the ‘phone -- says to call it off!”

The reporters swarmed behind the sheriff as he gave a curt command and raced down the corridor to his office.

The chaplain closed his book, keeping the place with his finger. He murmured something to the two men, who stood motionless and trembling on the scaffold.

Instantly the sheriff returned. He verified the news.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Stovich exploded. He was thoroughly disgusted.

A thought possessed him.

“Say, Boss, how do you know it’s the Governor? How do you know it ain’t a joke, or maybe some of these birds’ friends? Looks to me like somebody’s tryin’ to make a sucker out o’ you!”

“It was him, all right,” said the sheriff. “He says they’re innocent.”

“Yah -- I suppose!” spat Stovich bitterly.

“Hell!” he added. “Somebody’s a fine fathead -- that’s all I got to say!”

“Don’t take it so hard, Saps,” consoled the sheriff. “He didn’t say nothing about the other guy.”

For the first time in his long, useful, and industrious career, Stovich was thoroughly sour on his job. On other occasions he had been stimulated by the thought that in pressing the button that worked the trap he was supervising in the prosaic affairs of men with the might of an angry God, ending the sinful schemes that originated in the gray gelatin of his victims’ skulls -- ending their loves, their hopes, their dreams -- exterminating millions yet unborn.

Really profound thoughts were inspired in his brain by the gentle pressure of his thumb. Often he toyed with the apparatus to demonstrate how imperceptible a push would send the two-ton mechanism of the gallows crashing and tear the souls from their habitation.

But today he was surly and sore. When the third victim complained that the rope was adjusted too tightly, Stovich told him he was in a fair way of getting a sock on his smeller, and he did not wait for the prearranged signal to spring the trap. He had taken enough chances for one day!


© 2003-04 The Estate of Charles G. MacArthur. All Rights Reserved.


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