Old London Bridge, A Romance of the Sixteenth Century
Rodwell, G Herbert
THE war against the monastic orders had now set in with overwhelming fury; many monasteries had already been suppressed; commissioners had been appointed to take possession of these, and to prepare measures for the seizure of others. The enquirers into the lives and habits of the monks and nuns, were let loose over the whole land, and hunted down their victims in couples. The villanies and atrocities committed by these worthless wretches, employed for the purpose by the government, were in many cases too horrible to be recorded.
As a fair sample of the kind of persons engaged upon this religious investigation, as it was called, we may take Harry Horton and his coadjutor, who turned out to be no other than the brother of the Blear- eyed Bully. This man had, for a long time before, been employed as one of Henry's foreign spies, and it was in returning from his labours in ferreting out some of the designs of the potentates abroad, that he had discovered his dead brother, after the execution at Billingsgate. It was impossible for Horton to have been linked to one more congenial with his own feelings. They possessed the like dispositions for cunning villany, an equal disregard for every virtuous or honourable sentiment, added to a total absence of all feeling for the sufferings of others. There was another point upon which they were perfectly agreed, and that was an unalterable hatred to Edward Osborne. Horton's new ally was called Beltham Spikely, and it was he who had scowled so blackly upon the Bridge-shooter on St. John's Eve. He had completely disguised his visage by allowing his whiskers, beard, and long moustache to grow, which they did most luxuriantly. This was more a whim on his part than a necessary precaution to avoid detection, for such a trifle as torturing
|within an inch of death a youth humble as Osborne, was not likely to be regarded in any very serious light by those in power, and who at present were in want of all the assistance they could gain from tools as unprincipled as was the Blear-eyed Bully's twin brother. Although there never can be an adequate excuse set forth for the course pursued by Henry the Eighth in the spoliation of the religious houses of this kingdom, yet it must be confessed that the still-increasing depravity of those whose lives should have been holy, had reached such a pitch, that it was no longer possible to repair the rotten fabric-the only method was to pull it down altogether, and erect a new one in its stead. In doing this, justice was completely set aside. The King, the now supreme head of the church-the Pope's own dear " Defender of the Faith," was he who laid the axe to the very root; he willed it, and it must be done. Neither he, nor those about him, cared much how that doing was accomplished. To tempt the heads of the various houses to resign quietly their lands and wealth, promises of protection and rewards were lavished upon all, but these promises were never intended to be fulfilled, and even protection to the aged was but seldom accorded. All monks under twenty-four years of age were absolved from their vows, no provision made for their support, but were sent adrift at once upon the world, to beg, or steal, or starve, as the chance might be. The elder portion were allowed to make choice of freedom, or, if they preferred the monastic life, they were drafted off in small numbers into other houses, that might for the season be still allowed a short existence. The most helpless of the religious orders were the poor nuns, unused to work, un - friended by the world, because the world was now being taught that the nuns were but so many vicious impostors. They were turned out from their former homes to wander where they would, with no further provision " but a single common gown a-piece."|
There was another cause of great suffering, which was that arising from the general poor, who had formerly been relieved at the gates of the various monasteries and convents. Finding these sources of obtaining their daily bread suddenly cut off the streets in every town, the roads in every direction, soon became thronged with these wandering starving beggars. We may easily imagine, too, what vices were enacted by these thousands of monks and nuns being thrown hopelessly upon the world-many following vicious lives by choice, many driven to it by absolute despair. Terrible scenes frequently took place midst riot and even bloodshed, when some wealthy house, more notorious than others for its reputation of vile practices, was thrown open to the eyes of the world, and all the hidden deceits laid bare, the miraculous-working images brought out into the main road, and after being made to go through their ingeniously-contrived motions, amidst the laughter and ridicule of the very people who, but a short time before, had viewed their workings with amazement and with awe, they were broken up and burnt. The more the crowd found they had been so long deceived, the greater was the resentment felt against the juggling contrivers of the cheat; and in some instances the priests paid the forfeit of their crimes by being murdered on the spot.
The nunnery which now came under the especial guardianship of
|. Horton and his companion, was the Convent of the Minories. The nuns of St. Clair had long held a reputation for great beauty, and their chapel was always thronged, in consequence of the music being performed in a manner far superior at their religious house to that at most others, even of greater pretensions. One of the principal causes of this reputation in music, arose from the beauty of the voices of the Cripple of the Bridge- gate tower and that of Eoline, " The blind maid of St. Clair," as she was usually called. The Cripple, from being truly ugly and deformed, was regarded as a privileged being at the convent, and, although a man, was allowed the full range, not only of the farm attached, but also of the interior of the nunnery. He was a great favourite with the inmates, because he used to bring them all the news of the external world, and then would sing his sweetest songs to amuse them for whole evenings together. Now, it is not because a human being may be born without beauty, that he must be born also without feeling. It is true that, generally speaking, those utterly devoid of personal attraction, soon acquire so completely a control over their apparent passions, as to keep, at all events, from the world's eye, their inward feelings. This arises from that all-powerful check upon man's words and actions-the fear of ridicule. The poor Cripple would never have dared to own, even to himself, that he loved, had he not fancied he had found in Eoline's blindness an excuse for venturing to give way to the sweetest of all passions. He knew the fascination of his voice, and he also knew that Eoline could hear; a joy extreme was his whenever she owned she loved to hear it. Now, to those even who possess the blessing of sight, the passion of love arises generally more from a contemplation of the beauties of an ideal being, than from those which really stand out in form material before the human eye. The maiden while alone, if she but think upon her lover, 'tis then he makes a far deeper impression upon her heart, than when he stands in form confessed before her. If this be true in the case of those who have the gift of sight, how much more intensely must this power of the ideal have acted upon one in the benighted state of Eoline. She had created a being, in her mind's eye, of such perfection, that the most consummate of mortal beauty would have shrunk abashed from being placed in hopeless comparison. Her two most powerful senses were those of hearing and of touch. Now, it so happened, that the Cripple's hand was almost feminine, and when it came in contact with her own, its tender pressure thrilled to her heart; so did his voice when he sang. Thus, then, the blind and lame became sworn lovers, whose truth was likely to endure as long as their lives should last. She was beautiful, but then she had no eyes to read the admiration her charms created. He was ugly, but she saw it not; and that very ugliness was her safeguard against his being tempted from his truth to her, for all who saw him, loathed him.|
Before we enter upon the strange occurrences which were soon to take place within the Convent of the Minories, we must cast a glance backwards, as far as that day upon which the saintly Father Brassinjaw was trotting along the road, mounted upon his little, fat, long-eared mule. It may be remembered he was journeying to the lonely cottage in which Horton had for a time taken up his abode; and he trotted along with a
|breast boiling over with saintly indignation against both Horton and the lovely Alyce, for their daring to keep from their confessor so great a secret as the one they endeavoured to hide. So well did Brassinjaw play his cards, that Horton was completely taken off his guard, for he believed the priest knew much more of the truth than he really did; for, in fact, he knew nothing, but he guessed a good deal. Horton soon found, that unless he allowed Father Brassinjaw a good half of the spoil he intended to gather, he should have to relinquish the whole, and must himself be brought to a fearful reckoning. He agreed to all the father's pretty bold demands, which he made, as he said, to show that such duplicity as that of Horton was not to go unpunished by the Church's sense of justice. Horton succumbed the more readily, as he required the services of Brass- injaw to visit the Blear-eyed Bully, and endeavour to find out whether he would die without betraying his accomplices. It was settled with regard to Sir Filbut, that they should fleece him as thoroughly as possible, and that Alyce, for reasons which Horton kept to himself, should not be allowed to guess that Brassinjaw ever for a moment suspected her.|
After the execution of the Bully, Horton came in contact with the Bully's second self, his twin-brother; it was arranged that they would all three act in concert. Spikely not only served the king as a spy, but robbed him as a smuggler. He had a vessel of his own, in which he was ever passing backwards and forwards from and to the Continent, orders being given that his boat was not to be too closely watched, enabled him to export from this kingdom vast quantities of that strictly-prohibited article, the staple of our land-wool. The most usual method employed to deceive the officers of the customs, was to pack the wool in beer casks, and so carelessly was the duty of examination performed, that a little yeast being smeared about the bunghole, was deemed precaution quite sufficient to prevent detection.
Sir Filbut Fussy was tempted to pay a large sum for this vessel to convey him and Alyce, and all his valuables, to Italy; and as it was not known when the fortunate hour might arrive, it was settled that all Sir Filbut's goods and chattels should be shipped by degrees, and then all things kept in readiness, so that the moment Sir Filbut stept his foot aboard, the sails might be set, and thus the deeply-plotted villany consummated.
Brassinjaw agreed to the attempt to drive Osborne out of his mind by fright, and it was his own scheme that Spikely, being so like his dead brother, should buy his clothes from the executioner, and pass for the ghost of the Bully. The reader may remember the scene in the chapel of St. Thomas of the Bridge, and the supernatural disappearance, as Osborne at the time, believed it to be, of the ghost, as it descended the stairs to the crypt below, and which Brassinjaw had declared he never saw, although he ascended at the very moment. The more secure Horton and his companion believed themselves to be, the less did they feel inclined to go shares with Brassinjaw, and they were ever trying to chouse him out of his proportion of the profits. This was a great want of wisdom on their parts, for clever as they might deem themselves to be, they
|should have remembered that a priest in those days was not one very likely to sleep with more than one eye closed at a time; and as to cunning deceit, Brassinjaw was a man who could have given either of them half a dozen points, and have still won the game easily. He agreed to everything they dictated, but he kept a careful watch, and noted down every attempt to catch him, intending one day to make each lay a trap for themselves. Greatly was the saintly Father Brassinjaw perplexed to know how to make the most of the secrets he possessed. He already foresaw the religious storm that was threatening to burst upon the heads of him and all of his fraternity. He had already collected a good round sum from his devotees, and by taking out the real jewels from the offerings to his church, and substituting false ones in their places. His excuse to himself for this was, that they might not fall into the power of the sacrilegious thieves, who were now beginning to be sent over the country by the King, to seize upon all the valuables they could lay their hands upon. Some of his other schemes we shall shortly have to disclose.|
Horton had proved himself such an adept at finding out the vices of the poor monks and nuns, who fell beneath his hands, that Cromwell bestoweed on him almost unlimited power over all but the lives of the poor creatures intended to be sacrificed. He and his companion now took the affairs of the Nunnery of the Minories into their most serious consideration; and having extorted from the sisterhood all they could by threats or promises, they still felt convinced that more secrets lay hidden within the bosoms of many of the nuns, and - that if they could but make them speak out, there would be, at least glorious amusement, if not great gain for themselves in a worldly point of view. A diabolical idea entered the head of Horton, which made Spikely roar with laughter, and so taken were they both with the glorious thought, that they hurried off at once to put it into execution. The Abbess was away from home when they arrived; for this they were rather glad, so putting on a look of mock gravity, they summoned the nuns before them and for a time, carried on the examination in as serious a tone, as their inward determination for mischief would allow them to assume. Presently the grand scheme was to be carried out, the wine cellars were thrown open, the wine brought forth, and the poor nuns compelled to drink until they became mad from intoxication. Some laughed, some sang, others danced about, not knowing what they did, encouraged by the applause and laughter of the two fiends who witnessed this horrid scene. Some, who were less stupified by the effects of the wine they had drunk, fell down in fits of weeping upon the floor. The scene was now becoming too dreadful to describe, when the Abbess returned, leading by the hand the blind girl, Eoline.
Who can portray in words, the feeling of despair, of rage, of shame, that filled the breast of the Abbess, as she beheld the fiendish scene. " Ah, ah! my beauty I" exclaimed Horton, as he saw for the first time the lovely Eoline, "come hither, my bright-eyed fair one,"-he knew not that she was blind,-for although usually her eyes were gently closed, yet, when alarmed, the lids uprose, and then those eyes were beautiful
|to look at, though sightless--" come hither, and sit upon my knee," said he, "and drink confusion to yon old hag, the Lady Abbess."|
"Confusion to the Lady Abbess !" exclaimed some of the nuns, who had been compelled to say those words a dozen times before.
" Horror !" ejaculated the Abbess. " Eoline, to your cell, to your cell, or fly the place altogether- "
" Indeed, but she does not !" roared out Horton, " she shall be my own particular angel-I've suddenly fallen in love with her." So saying he rose, as if to approach Eoline.
"Touch her not !" exclaimed the Abbess; "if you lay but a finger on her, I will utter words, that, monster as you are, shall make your hand to wither and fall powerless."
" I'm too much up to your miracles, my old hag, to heed the pretended power of words, although uttered by a holy Lady Abbess. One kiss I will have, if but to put your vaunted juggling to the test." The Abbess seized his outstretched arm, and hurriedly whispered into his ear a few words, when suddenly he turned, and gazed upon the poor blind Eoline with look aghast. He stood for a second motionless, his eyes then wandered about, his lips moved silently, as if his memory was at work, and he was repeating to himself all which that mysterious agent of the mind, was bringing up from her hidden stores; at last he exclaimed-" If what you say be true, and I believe it is so, you have given up a secret which to me is worth her weight in gold. You are right-right--she is safe from me, and mind, that on your life, you keep her safe from others. If you play me false, there's not a limb of one of you, that shall not by the rack be made to bend the wrong way easier than the right. If you would save the miserable roof that shelters you, serve me, and serve me truly. It will not be long before you know my determination; but I have other things to do before I can look to this, in the way I must. Keep the secret still, until I have determined what course you must pursue."
The two monsters now left the nunnery; the moment they were gone, the few nuns who had fled from fear, upon the approach of Horton and his myrmidon, and had taken shelter in the farm belonging to the convent, now returned, and with kindly care took charge of the poor creatures, who still were acting madly under the influence of the intoxicating draughts they had been compelled to swallow. The Abbess sat musing for a few minutes, while working her fingers rapidly through her beads; she wept for a moment, then dashing away the tears, started up as if a sudden determination had seized upon her mind. Late as was the hour of night, she dispatched messengers in various directions to find out Father Brassinjaw; they were commanded to bring him straightway to her, as she must consult with him on an affair of the deepest import. One of the servants of the farm was then sent to command the Cripple of the Bridge-gate-tower not to lose a moment, but to hasten to the convent.
The scenes that had just taken place, had thrown the whole establishment into the wildest excitement. "Child," said the abbess to the blind girl, " bless thy want of sight ! better, far better be without eyes, than having eyes, be forced to look upon the sights I have this night
|. witnessed: but they are but the endings of bad beginnings; years may roll on-years of fancied security; but there is an ever-invisible working of fate that never sleeps. I would confess thee to-night, child. I have deep reasons for the act. Follow me to the chapel, and at the altar's foot, mind that you answer truly every question I shall put."|
The Abbess having whispered some orders to those about her, left the hall; she bore in her hand a lamp; this was the only light within the chapel, and dark and melancholy did it look. The Abbess placed the lamp upon the altar, then kneeling down, murmured a long prayer. This ended, she confessed the blind girl, Eoline, whose answers appeared to give great comfort to the mind of the Abbess, who, at the conclusion of a long string of interrogatories, kissed her forehead, saying, " All may yet be well, at least for thee; would that my passions were as calm, as pure as thine !"
The Father Brassinjaw now hurried into the chapel, and, for a wonder at so late an hour, was sober. He was soon made acquainted with all that had happened, and, notwithstanding the sanctity of the spot, he let loose to his feelings, and called down a good round curse upon the head of Harry Horton, for daring to violate a region he regarded as peculiarly his own. The Abbess, leaving Eoline praying at the altar, retired with the reverend hypocrite to a distant part of the chapel, to consult with him on her intended project. They debated the subject warmly, but in the end the saintly Father Brassinjaw fell entirely into the views of the Abbess, who, ringing her little silver bell, summoned the inmates of the sacred pile to prayer. Eoline was ordered to retire, and do whatever she was bidden. Those whose duty it was, immediately commenced lighting up the chapel, which, in an incredibly short space of time, changed from that of gloom to brightest splendour. The candles upon the altar, ranging from the length of a few inches to that of several feet, were all ignited, and gave a peculiar beauty to the midnight scene; not a lamp was left unlighted. The incense sent forth its peculiar holy vapour throughout the sacred aisles, and all the appliances of the gorgeous style of worship connected with the Roman Catholic Church, were called into requisition. Father Brassinjaw put on his sacred robes, and had just performed his first genuflection before the altar, when Willy the Cripple of the Bridge-gate- tower entered the holy precincts. He was about to take his usual place as a singer, when he was astonished at being beckoned by the Abbess to approach her, and still more so, when he heard her thus address him. " Be not surprised at this unusual call, or rather, let not surprise (for surprised you must be) so bind up the free will of your brain, that you repent to-morrow of the act you are called upon to perform to-night, that is, if your inclination jump with the chance that this life's strange adventures now present you. Long have I known, that notwithstanding your hopelessness in such a case, that you have loved !" The Cripple was indeed astonished, for though he could not disguise the truth from himself, he had studiously done so, as he thought, from the eyes of the scoffing world; but he was still more astonished as the Abbess proceeded in her address. " The object of your love," she said, "is Eoline!" Here all present, excepting the speaker and the priest, appeared as surprised as did the poor Cripple; but when she added, " Will you consent
|to marry her ?" he knew not whether he lived or was in another world, or whether all he saw and heard was the strangely-born offspring of a dream. He rubbed his eyes, his ears; he looked around in wild amaze; then falling upon his knees, exclaimed, " Oh! holy, holy saints, have pity, have pity upon a wretch, and free him from the witchcraft that now surrounds him! Speak, speak to my soul, and tell me what his means !"|
The Abbess, taking him by the hand, said calmly, " It means nor more nor less than what my words import. Are you willing, from your own free agency, unbidden, unconstrained, to take to wife the blind girl, Eoline ?"
" How can such a deformed, degraded thing as I, say yes ? And yet were I but like to other men, and she could love me, nor racks, nor tortures, nor seeing of death itself, should make my lips say no!"
" I knew as much," replied the Abbess; then again sounding her little silver bell, all the servants of the nunnery farm entered the chapel, and, amidst several nuns, the Cripple beheld the fair star of all his heart's most secret hopes, enter the chapel. She was now attired in white, and over her head, reaching to the ground, hung down a superb veil. She answered as warmly to the questions put to her, as he had done, regarding her free acceptance of the Cripple for her husband. Upon this the Abbess lay great stress, and called all present to witness that no force had been employed. Not an act that could render the marriage lawful and indissoluble, was omitted; every one present either signed their names, or made their crosses, as witnesses to the holy contract; and thus to the heart's joy, but surprise unfathomable of both, did the Cripple of the Bridge-gate-tower and the lovely blind girl, Eoline, find themselves suddenly man and wife.
" For reasons well known to ourself, and our holy Father Brassinjaw," said the Abbess, "it is requisite this marriage, for a season, be kept a profound secret."
The Cripple was rather relieved than annoyed at hearing this; for, so completely by surprise had he been taken, that although he had a wife, he had no idea of where he was to take her, or how he was to provide for her. The only boon he craved, and that he did secretly of the Abbess, was for permission to divulge the truth to one friend-and that friend was Edward Osborne. This permission being granted, the assemblage dispersed. Father Brassinjaw remained for some time in secret conference with the Abbess upon their future plans; and the Cripple, taking a kind adieu of his sweet young wife, strolled towards the Bridge.
The farther he receded from the nunnery, the more and more did the bright vision seem to vanish from his view, until at last, as he placed the key in the tower door, and heard the welcome of the old owl, he really began to imagine that he rather dreamt, or was the sport of fairies. " If this be true, in very deed, old wife," he said, addressing the owl, " I must become another Harry, and divorce you, or cut off your head. Ha, ha ! ho, ho ! he, he !- curses on that laugh ! I have sworn to conquer it; and I will, or tear my tongue out." We must now leave the Cripple in his sea of dreamy wonder. He
|. knew not what to think--was he married ? It is a thing that few men ever doubt of, if once they try it; but his marriage had been so like a tale of wild romance, that a doubt would still arise; and in his dreams that night he dreamt it was a dream.|