John Charles Tapner

Guy Davenport

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1979, Vol. 1, No. 1

A lantern held to his face showed which of the exiles in the weave of the waves was the one who had insulted the Queen. Their longboat had touched into the shingle and they jumped from her prow, wet to the hips, to hand out women and boxes and trunks with hummocked tops. They’d come across from Jersey in a fog, calling on a tin trumpet that had the one flat ugly note breaking into the music of the gannets and gulls, the bells of the buoys, and the ruckus of windwash rolling the ocean at half dawn.

It was a grand thing to see them all remove their hats and bow from the waist as the old one came from the boat. I had their names on a list from the constable: Bachelet, Dessaignes, Fruchard, Thomas, under proscription the lot, exiles living from pillar to post.

Well over thirty years ago the first Napoleon died, in a rage they say, on some island no bigger than this half the world around, and the dust he raised will not settle in our time. But then the French love a drum and adore a scarlet sash. Give them a snail to eat, a tall bottle, a book with things ungodly and wild in it, and they will follow a general with a moustache from shoulder to shoulder and a brass band into heathendom and beyond, heel-deep in their own gore.

He came across the brown sand, enlarged by the mist that had bedevilled the island for days, a hank of vraic around one boot, he never minding the hamp of it, his grizzard beard runched out from the lappets of his redingote. The bonnet and frogged cape behind him was his wife, fashed and tottering, flapping like a sea mew. And yet another fluster of ruffles, wet and squealing gaily, was his daughter.

A very Beethoven of a wind! he cried into my ear. Holding the lantern aloft, I bade him welcome to the Bailiwick of Guernsey. I did not ask for papers. The peelers would remark upon that later.

His cunning eyes looked out of silken wrinkles, the eyes of a man easy with books and talk, restless and attentive, no rat’s jinking from a hole more awake.

The daughter had a beauty which was, at that hour and maugre the blore, wearying toward length in the tooth and a sharpness of nose. She would later run away to the new world after a red sash of her own, but that’s another story. From under her drenched cape she took two great oblong books. Shakespeare.

— Monsieur Martin, he said, pronouncing it French.

He took my hand in both of his and looked into the backrooms of my soul, my God what eyes! A knitch more on the fire and we stood in puddles before a blaze, swapping politenesses in a desperate sort of way, until madame said she would scream if she did not have a chair, a posset, and camphor on her temples.

— And what did I say? my goodwife Polly hissed as I fetched the rum.

— It is the way grandfolk act, I said. Consider the honor.

We put them up, we and the neighbors, for that hectic day, and that was that, for the nonce. They took the fine house in Hauteville Street, Number 20, that belongs to Domaille, renting it for the year, even though the Alien Bill might shoot him out onto the sea again if all his grand talk had no effect on the high collars in London.

He had come here from Jersey, and he had come to Jersey from Belgium, where a number of exiles had fled, Doctor Raspail who wrote the home medical book, and the heretic Edgar Quinet. Louis Napoleon had scattered them all. Islanders study the newspaper carefuller than most.

We saw them every day or so moving about the rainy streets under umbrellas, and you could always, if you wanted, find the old one on a rock orating to the waves. He liked the young men who came from England and France to find him there, standing as if about to step higher, his cloak lifted out by the wind, saying things in Latin to the rack, to the silly puffins.

The man who made the daguerreotype of Tapner at the last came and took his likeness posed there on the rock.

Half the mail coming to and leaving the island was his. His little dog with a spot over his eye followed him everywhere. Senate was his name.

Two weeks after his arrival he turned up one morning and warmed his hands at our fire. Polly gave him the hint of a curtsey and pleaded that she had to go wring the neck of a hen.

Which reminded him, he said, of our curious taxes, each of us owing a chicken to the Queen by way of taxes. The droit de poulet, they call it in law.

— This paradise of fuchsias, he said. The green! Do you know, Citoyen Martin, that the greens get greener as one moves north up Europe? There is but one green, an acid, dull olive green, in the Mediterranean, but here on Guernsey there are forty greens, viridities of incredible brilliance, smaragdines, chartreuses, 0 leek and beryl and citrine. From tree to haw to lawn the eye passes more verdurous shades than in all Naples. You have a very Africa of green here, all the Brazils. And with the tenderest blue of the sky, the wild forzando of the fuchsia, and the glory of the jonquils to accent it. This is another Polynesia, with frost and fog.

And scarcely without taking a new breath he turned from the window and stared into my eyes.

— Tell me about Tapner, he said.

It was over Tapner that he had insulted the Queen. He had written a haughty letter to Palmerston himself that had been printed in the paper. I coughed and said nothing.

— It is, he went on, turning back to the window, a charming place indeed, your Saint-Pierre-Port. It is almost like a city for bustle when the paquebote is in, but in between, what serenity!

— It is not Paris, I said.

— Paris! he almost spat. Panrs! he said with a long sigh. What is Paris but the avenue de l’Opera? Snobs, merchants, politicians, boulevardiers, pedants, stupid women. If I fear l’expioulcheune it is because I would be in danger of having to return to all that merde. Can you show me the gibbet where Tapner died?

— Guernsey is an honest island, I said. We are all God—fearing people here, chapel for the most. We are nonconformists, like Milton, like Cromwell. We like to think of ourselves as independent and moral. There are about forty thousand souls on the islands, and there were but three in jail before the execution of Mr Tapner. There are but two now, one of them a man kept there as a debtor by his wife, to whom he owes sixteen shillings. It is said that they love each other dearly, but as she likes to say, money is money. He has been there ten years.

His eyes got as big as pennies. I fancied he was about to take it all back about our lovely greens.

— I tell you this, I went on, to explain how little trouble we have among us. Tapner seemed to be the Devil his very self. His like is not common here, as I have no doubt it is in terrible places like London and Europe.

He smiled. He was, I’ll vow, a gracious man.

— It’s Mr Barbet we’d have to see, I said. He’s the jailor. He saw more of Tapner than I.

— You are the Queen’s Provost, yes?

I nodded that I was, as he very well knew.

It was the opinion of Polly that this strange family was itself a signal contribution to the element of crime and impropriety on our island. The son Francois Victor had arrived and was said to be turning all the plays of Shakespeare into French, and as fast as he was doing them they were acting them in the evenings. We had the word here and the word there that duels with pokers had been sighted by passersby with a view of the windows, and that Agatha Tippy the seamstress had been asked to run up laughable clothes of purple and yellow stuff such as a mummer might wear.

Worse than that, the old one made up plays himself. We heard from their cook that one of them was about a lion that ate Christians in the time of the Romans. The old one took this part, wearing a false face that made him look like a cat the size of a pony, or a mustard owl. The story is out of an old book, as I explained to Polly. It is a tale in which an early Christian takes a thorn from the sore foot of a lion and, later, when it is his time to be a martyr and to fight wild beasts for the amusement of the Romans, it is this very lion to which he did the kindness that he faces, and instead of eating him the lion rolls over, returning the good deed.

— Grown people! said Polly. But then they’re French. And there’s another one has come, a Miss Drouet, if you please.

— A kinswoman? I’d asked.

— Foot, hooted Polly, nor frip of her was never a tenth cousin to any of that crew. What a nupson you can be, John Martin! The woman’s a hoor. Your Frenchman, I’ve been told, has a wife for show and another woman for the sin of it, and they think no more of it than whistle up the drainpipe, hen tread the midden. What’s more, they’re all Papists, and not a moral among them anymore than a rat wears a flannel shimmy. She wasn’t in her house a week before she sent for Hodge Perthmore to lay out a bed of flowers for her to make the letters of the alphabet vee and aitch. I tell you, it’s like Mesopotamia in the Bible, kings and concubines. I hear the vicar has had to put a vinegar rag to his temples for worrying about it.

In addition to which there was taking Shakespeare out of the table. That gave me more of a turn than their nesting habits.

— Yiss indeed, Tabitha Grimble told us, holding her saucer of tea at her chin and looking at us out of the side of her eyes. I have it on a word of honor. They take Shakespeare out of a table. The table cocks its leg, so to speak, and raps on the floor. I didn’t sleep all night, thinking about it. And when it has rapped in a certain way, Shakespeare begins to write to them from the beyond, if you see what I mean.

Polly’s eyes were out on stalks.

— They follow one scandal with the next!

— They have a board with an ABC on it, you understand, and a wee stand with three pegs it stands on, and they touch this ever so lightly with their fingertips, and this thingumabob moves about and spells words, do you see?

— But of course they’re pushing it where they want it to go, I protested.

— Oh no! said Tabitha. Their eyes are shut tight. It’s her, the daughter, copies down what Shakespeare . . .

— Old Scratch, Polly corrected.

Who are they? Tabitha said. I know they’re prominent people, and gentry as they have it in France, and that they’re in bad with their king over there. So oriental, the French, wouldn’t you say?

— They all have the same Christian names, Polly said, locating another scandal. The mother is Addle, the daughter is Addle; father and son are both Victor. But what’s that when they haven’t no more gumption than my hens and break the seventh commandment and eat snails.

— And was taken off Jersey by the Law and brought here, Tabitha said, because of something disrespectful of the Queen he put in a newspaper. I wonder that they don’t bundle the lot of them back to France.

— What, John, did he say in the newspaper? Was it that letter about Tapner?

— He tried to keep Tapner from being hanged, I explained. He has spoken against capital punishment for years. On the lines, as I understand it, that two wrongs don’t make a right. Says it makes a murderer of society.

Tabitha looked outrage from her eyes. Polly patted her foot.

— I wonder how he would have talked, I said, if he had known Tapner?

He wore his greatcoat, for the day was raw. We met, as agreed, before the prison, up the hill from the government buildings. I had told him how he could identify the plain granite building by he G cut in the arch of its gate, and over the G a crown. He was there when I arrived, a cunning look of amusement in his eyes.

— The G, he said, pointing up, and the crown.

I shook hands with him in the French manner, and pulled the bell that brought a warder to let us in. The jailor was on the lookout for us, and came forward bearing a ring of keys.

— Barbet I said, this is Vicomte Hugo, the distinguished French writer who’s taking refuge on our shores because he doesn’t recognize Napoleon the Third as Emperor of his country. Vicomte, High Sheriff Barbet.

— Never Vicomte, he said, shaking a playful finger at me. Mister is all a man needs, or if you prefer, Citizen Hugo, unless, of course, one is a High Sheriff.

His bow to Barbet from the waist embarrassed us both. Barbet winked, as if to say that we had a slippery one on our hands.

— I want, Monsieur Hugo said, quite simply to see the cell of John Charles Tapner. And, if it is permitted, where he died. He pronounced him Zhon Sharl Topnair.

— Well, Barbet said, you are welcome to Barbet House, as those adept at hamesucn and sneakbudging call my establishment.

I realized that Monsieur Hugo understood very little English. He and I spoke French, if you can call my schoolboy’s French French. When Barbet spoke, Hugo had that look in his eye which was part bluff and part hope that what was being said did not require comment or answer.

We passed through Barbet’s apartments and could see his wife and daughter peeling carrots and potatoes.

Tapner’s cell, when we reached it down a cold white corridor, had a black door. Long iron hinges traversed its width.

— It is occupied, you understand, Barbet explained as he found the key and unlocked the narrow black door with such a feeling of blankness about it, as if it had no right to any feature or ornament.

Inside there was a woman, shivering. Her dress was thin, her shoes worn out, and her only other garment, a kind of party coat, once pink, had been some grand lady’s wrap for summer wear. She sat huddled on a cot before a small brick fireplace that had nothing in it.

— She is a thief, Barbet said as if she were not there, an Irish thief.

Hugo looked at her with pity, but said nothing. I think he wanted to speak, but restrained himself. Instead, he looked carefully at the ferociously plain walls, at the little window with its two black bars.

— She has been arraigned? he asked in a soft, conversational tone.

— And is waiting for her sentence, Barbet said.

— What will it likely be?

— Australia, I suppose. These cells are way stations, you might call them. The prisoners go from here to another prison, to deportation, or to the gallows. Across the way you can see the Mill Bank block, where the prisoners are serving out time. There they may not speak, or sing, or whistle.

— Why, said Hugo, does that woman not have a fire to sit by?

— No fires ever, Barbet said, however cold it gets, except by doctor’s orders.

Barbet opened the cell next to Tapner’s. It was empty, and somehow looked less desolate than the other because it was empty. Some prisoner had decorated the whitewashed wall. He had written the words war, history, and Cain. And around these unarticulated words he had drawn a veritable navy of all sorts of ships, accurately but without any grace of line.

Monsieur Hugo stood on the bed and peered out the high window.

— One can see Sark, he said. And ships on the horizon. That woman back there, he said in the same tone of voice, is phthisical. I should also think that she is dying.

Barbet glanced at me. This Monsieur Hugo was already overstepping himself.

— She is not bright, Barbet offered. For days she has been asking if her grandmother is still alive. Not that she will tell us who her grandmother is, mind you. Just that, the everlasting question if her grandmother’s alive.

We were shown a cell for particular punishment, where the window was too high to see out of, and where the bed was a mere bench.

— Well, look here! Barbet said. Here’s more whitewash ruined.

A whole wall was drawn over with a maze. It was a Troy Town or garden path that doubles and doubles on itself, but far more confused.

Monsieur Hugo followed some of it with his finger, and laughed.

— I suppose these buggers have no reason to feel that they should be considerate of my walls, Barbet said.

— No! Monsieur Hugo said, brightening his face into a glorious grin. But no, never, none whatsoever!

I had never seen him so merry. Barbet laughed too, God knows why. Hugo clapped him on the shoulder, laughing the harder. Then he put his hands deep in his pockets and his beard on his chest, a characteristic way of walking along for him. I’ve noticed it often. Suddenly he looked up at me with utter mischief on his face, like Mr Punch.

Of the seven cells in this wing of the prison one is fitted out as a chapel. It has a wooden chair in a corner for the minister and several rows of backless benches for the worshippers, with hymnals and tracts arranged upon them neatly.

With the largest of his keys Barbet opened a stoutly barred door and let us into an oblong court as bare of any object as an empty box. On three sides, high walls. The fourth side was the other half of the prison. Its narrow windows had panes, with white bars behind the glass.

It had begun to rain. We could see the branches of a tree in the sheriff’s garden beyond the wall, fog caught in them like lambswool. Barbet coughed and rocked on his heels, making his coat swing like a bell.

The jailor Pearce, whose sister is one of Polly’s cronies, came into the court, bringing with him a young man of good build.

— On his way, Barbet said, to ten years in Botany Bay, for theft.

He wore canvas trousers, a wool jacket, and a cap with a long bill. Pearce gave us good morning. Voices in that empty court sounded as hollow as across a field. The young man did not look at us.

Barbet took us to a kind of shed, without windows, that had been built onto the back of the prison. In here was the gallows.

— There are, as you may count, thirteen steps up. The condemned stands there, on that trap, and drops through when that bar is slid away. I think we might do it with more courage if the executions were still in the old way, in front of the prison, with a crowd to watch and cheer, and with the charges read in a strong voice before the drop.

— Tapner now, as you’ve come to hear about him, was wondrous calm, careless you might say, in his last days. Look here.

Barbet took a daguerreotype from his pocket.

— This was made just before he was hanged. We had the man with his apparatus into the cell. There was, as you can see, a good light. Look at that broad grin.

It was, indeed, the picture of a man pleased with himself.

— I fair had to shout at him, don’t smile! You must look serious in your picture. You are about to stand in judgment before your Maker. You would think it was a thing impossible, but he kept to his smile. He said it was well known that one should always smile when having one’s likeness taken.

— He was a kind of gentleman, you know. He worked at a government post until gin and pilfering got the better of his character.

— He was young, Monsieur Hugo said.

— He lived with two women, sisters, married to one, the lover of the other. He was of a Woolwich family, honest people they said at the trial. His father was a religious man. When the wife came for a last visit, she was heartbroken. She knew all about his carryings on with her sister. She forgave him all. The murder too, I suppose. These people are shocking.

— Before he was hanged, Tapner was presented with a prayer book by the minister. Read that if you are guilty, the minister said. I am not guilty, Tapner said. Read those prayers anyway. We are all sinners. An hour later the minister found Tapner reading the book, water standing in his eyes.

— Tapner had insured his life for five hundred pound, the premiums for which took his whole income. He ran his household with what he could steal.

— And did the insurance company pay up? Monsieur Hugo asked.

— Of course not.

— Not even the premiums?

— Oh no! It would have been a scandal to do that.

— See how virtuously an insurance company can rob a widow, Monsieur Hugo said. It seems the genius of this century is that it can find a good reason for anything. Did Tapner know about my letter to Palmerston?

— Oh yes, Barbet said. And he was very grateful. He felt that it was a large thing for you to do. He knew that it was useless, of course. Justice is justice.

— The tenth of February he was hanged. He was thirty-one. In all our years of hanging we had always paraded the condemned through the streets, by the school, down the High Street, and through the market. Six soldiers went before, rolling drums in a slow march, and the Queen’s man brought the mace behind. We had not had a hanging for a full twenty-five years. Times change, as they say. It did not seem modern to walk him around the town, the rope already fitted to his neck. So Tapner was hanged privately here, in this dark place. For I am the resurrection and the life were the last words he heard. He himself had nothing at all to say. His shirt was wet with a cold sweat when we tied on the hood, and his eyes were those of a suffering animal.

Monsieur Hugo placed a foot on the bottom step up to the gallows and looked at the crossbeam where the rope would have been secured. We could hear rain on the roof.

— Once Tapner dropped through the trap, Barbet said, the Queen’s man, the chaplain, and the judge all left quickly. We waited an hour before we cut him down. After keeping back a bit of the rope for a remembrance, I put it on the fire. It is a thing that has always been done.

From the gibbet we three walked down Market Street to that maze F of brick courts and dark passageways nigh the cattlepens behind which we came to Potter’s Field, as forsaken and cheerless a place as you will find on the island. A stubborn bramble choked the corners of its low wall, and its meadow grass, matted now and dank with rain, needed a thorough coursing of sickle and rake.

— Over there, Barbet nodded toward a red roof showing above an orchard, is the Frenchman BEasse’s house. Come and look over the wall. Like as not we’ll see Tommy Didder.

— And who is he? Monsieur Hugo said from the lappets of his great coat.

— His gardner, as was. And his hangman.

— Béasse, I explained, goes back twenty year or so, an officer in the campaigns in the Peninsula.

— With my father, Monsieur Hugo said. You say that he was hanged? Here?

— Well, Barbet said, he killed his own child, a bastard he had by his cook, and tried to hide the little body over there in that orchard. The state of the cook had been noticed, and its change, and with no tyke in evidence, our suspicions were aroused. The gardner Didder found it himself. They’d run a stick right through it, from mouth to fundament, a sight so pitiful the crowner shouted at the jury that their duty was to get Beasse into an eternity of hell fire as fast as they could return a verdict of Guilty. He was taken through the streets, and the soldiers made way for people to spit on him.

— The times have changed, I said. The feeling was never so fierce among the people when Miss Saujon’s body was found with her throat cut from ear to ear, and all the evidence showed that Tapner had doubtless done it.

— Doubtless?

— O, no doubt, Mister Hugo, Barbet said. They were seeing each other in a sinful way. Moral degeneracy in one respect leads to any other. Tapner had the Devil in him. God knows what caused him to cut the poor woman’s throat. But cut it he did. They found his shirt as bloody as a butcher’s.

We’d reached the wall, and looked over. The garden was all mulched and under beds of hay. Didder was nowhere in sight.

— He has his memories, Barbet said. He had to accuse, and to hang the man he was gardner to. If ever a man felt the sharpness of a judgment, it was Beasse. The bailly, you see, was his best friend. They were like brothers here on the island. His ears took the sentence of hanging from the mouth of the man he loved most. Their eyes never once met in the court room. And Didder, his gardner, hanged him. I can show you his trap, as well as Tapner’s. We make a new one every time. I have them in a shed at the jail.

— No, Monsieur Hugo said, but I’ll see Tapner’s grave, if you’ll show it to me.

Stones no bigger than bricks marked the plots in that dreary, wet ground, and they were smothered in grass all a gnarl. We got the sexton, who had been opening a grave for a pauper, to help us with the finding.

— He was buried in his own clothes, Barbet said, which by our law are his. In London, you know, all the effects of the condemned belong to the hangman. But he has to provide a shroud. You wouldn’t put even the damned indecent into their graves.

The day was thickening with fog. Tapner’s stone was shiny with mist when we found it. The sexton pushed down the grass with his boot so that we could read the begrudging JCT 1854 cut on it with a degree of neatness.

— Did you bury Tapner? Monsieur Hugo asked the sexton.

— Beg pardon, Sir?

The brogue had raddled him. I put the question myself.

— This booger here? Yiss. Him what was a fornicator and never did a stroke of work in his life. Sat on a stool in a room with a stove. Two given to falling in fits, the stable lad and a girl from the Eldridge farm, came to touch the corpse. If it’s took off their affliction nobody has thought to tell me.

Monsieur stooped and broke off a blade of grass from Tapner’s grave and put it in the pages of a tablet he had in his pocket. Barbet looked at him as if he were a prize fool if ever one set foot on Guernsey.

— Are you satisfied, then, Mister Hugo? he asked. This damp is getting into my bones and my feet are starting to perish.

A silence. I had my thoughts, confused as they were, but I would remember that moment later, when there was a sort of fellowship among us there at Tapner’s grave, little as any of us understood anything of each other. I remembered it when he wrote yet more letters, this time to America, to demand of those stout and troubled people that they not hang the man John Brown. I remembered it when his daughter followed the English soldier to Newfoundland and sent back the lie that she was his wife.

— And now, Mister Hugo, Barbet said as a pleasantry that did not sound like one, are you quite satisfied?

— I am told, he said, that your minister Monsieur Palmerston wears all the time white gloves.

He held his hands, as freckled and wrinkled as his face, out in the raw air, for us to see.

— I do not.

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