Old London Bridge, A Romance of the Sixteenth Century

Rodwell, G Herbert





There saw I first the dark imagining

Of Felony-and all the compassing;

The cruel ire, red as any glede;

The pick-purse, and eke the pale drede

Conteke with bloody knife, and sharp menace:

All full of chirking was that sorry place.-Chaucer.

AFTER the moon had descended on the night of our May-day, thick clouds overspread the heavens, and all around was dark and drear. The cataracts beneath the bridge were at their greatest fall, and came down thundering and raging, as though Old Father Thames was struggling to dash in pieces the mighty chain which Peter of Colechurch had thrown across him, and which now was chafing him to madness. There are few sounds more appalling to mortal ears than that of raging waters heard in darkness, it seems like the voice of Desolation calling upon Death !

The old bell of St. Paul's had just proclaimed that the twelfth hour of night was dead and had passed away for ever, when a little glimmering light might be perceived issuing from the small opening to be found in the basement of Master Hewet's house, which stood exactly over the fifth arch, counting from the right-hand side of our large plate of Old London Bridge-then for a moment it was obscured-then it shone forth again: and now might be faintly discerned the shadowy form of a man descending by a rope upon the sterling beneath-it was Harry Horton !

Taking from his breast a small silver tube, he placed it to his lips and sent forth one long shrill whistle; but, loud as it was, it could scarcely be heard above the falling waters, that seemed to be laughing in derision at the puny effort; and yet it must have reached the intended ear, for instantly a window over the centre of the sixth arch opened, and another rope was let down, at the end of which was fastened a small ship lantern; this was wavered from side to side, further and further, until it reached the hand of Horton, who, twisting the end of the rope round his wrist, with a determined bound swung across the flood, and landed upon the opposite sterling. From this sterling a rude ladder, led to the house above. Before he mounted, he said to the man who was looking down upon him- -" Has he come ?"


. "Not yet," was the reply; "but he cannot now be long. There are some half dozen merry blades here; so up, and be as merry as they."

Horton ascended, and once more found himself in the well-known lower drinking-room of the "Cardinal's Hat," the public of worst repute upon the bridge.

Amongst the half dozen ill-looking fellows who sat around a large flaggon of sweet ale, mixed with ardent spirits, was one, who had better, for his own credit, have been elsewhere-it was no less a personage than the saintly Father Brassinjaw! This right reverend gentleman generally found some excuse for passing a few hours every night in this receptacle of vice-but, he said, "it was his duty to seek out the vicious-the good could take care of themselves: where vice was, he would ever be found." And he might have added, that where he was found, vice surely was.

It was at these midnight meetings that Horton used to gather from this drunken priest the secrets of all his neighbours, and which he treasured up, intending, as time should serve, to turn them to his own account.

The excuse father Brassinjaw made for being there this evening, was that he had seen the newsman come in; and that he, like all the dwellers on the bridge, was anxious to learn the real cause of their recent alarm.

Before newspapers were invented, there were certain men who made it their sole employ to go about collecting news, which, for a very small consideration they retailed out to the curiously inclined. The more respectable of the order, and who could write, gained a very fair living by sending news-sheets to the castles and country mansions of such as they could get to be their regular customers-the poorer sort, like the one now in the Cardinal's Hat, merely ran from pot-house to pot-house, repeating what they had heard during the day-and some times much which they had not heard.

Just as Horton entered, the newsman, a ragged, unwashed fellow, was standing in the midst of the dirty room, relating what was pretty nearly the truth-that-how he had just come from Greenwich, where there had been a tournament-and how that the King's Highness was there, and Nan Bullen too (for so the common people usually called the Queen), and how her brother Lord Rochford and Harry Norris fought- and that how Nan dropped her kerchief, and how Norris took it up and kissed it, pretending to wipe his face-and how the King, swearing a dreadful oath, jumped up, and mounting his horse, galloped off to London, attended only by six gentlemen-and how Rochford, and Norris, and Sir Francis Western were all arrested-and that how Nan Bullen fainted, and how it was said that all was a planned thing against Nan, because the King had a liking for Jenny Seymour-and that how she would be Queen, and Nan be burnt to death.

"And serve her right" roared out Brassinjaw, in rather an unsteady voice;-" she's a heretic, and deserves to be burnt; and so I would have told the King to his face, had I seen him go by."

" Neither you, nor any man living, had dared to wag a tongue," said the host, "had you seen him. As black as thunder is virgin snow .


compared to his look; and he came upon us, too, so unawares, that not a soul upon the bridge, save Master Hewet, who's always sure to be on the right side of the hedge-no, not one of us flopped down upon our knees as he went past. I hope the not bending of our knees may not prove the breaking of our necks." The discourse was here put an end to, as far as Horton was concerned, by the entrance of the man he had been so anxiously awaiting; the man took no notice of any one there save Horton, to whom he made a sign, and lifting up the trap-door, they both descended to the sterling beneath the arch of the bridge.

" Well," said Horton, " have you seen him ?"

"I have," replied the other, "' a white livered cur, as he is ! Why, he has no more pluck than a linnet; he's crying and blubbering in his cell, and swears rather than die, he'll hang us all--a nice friend that, is'nt he ? So beautifully as you had planned the robbery too, it must have fallen upon Osborne; and then for that bungling fool to get us all into this mess-I could hardly keep my paws quiet as I looked at him."

" It is useless railing thus-what is to be done ?" said Horton: " I thought that if he were once executed, we were all safe enough; but if he means to peach---"

" Why, they'll hang us up like rats," said the other; " there have been too many robberies of late, for 'em to let one of us escape. Now, his plan is this -he swears that he will not speak out until the last moment-so that if we put Wallace, the weaver, out of the way-in short he means murder him-there is no other evidence that can scrag our cowardly friend: Osborne ought not to appear, but his evidence does not carry death with it, and it is death only that Miles so fears."

"I will provide for Osborne, somehow or other," said Horton: " but as to murdering the weaver, I don't like it-a man's blood they say never dries up-and it's an awkward sight to be always seeing the red spot dancing before one's eyes."

" Necessity, even the priests confess, has no law," retorted the other; "and besides, if we do take one life, we save another, so that strikes the balance-doesn't it ? and I'll answer for it, that Father Brassinjaw won't be over hard upon us, at confession, if we do the handsome. You keep your word about young Osborne, and I'll manage all else so gently that the weaver shall never say who hurt him. Either he, or we must die; that's an argument that doesn't require much debating. If we do kill him, where can be the sin? we do it to save ourselves-and self-preservation is the first law of nature-' fast bind, fast find,' remember that."

After several plans had been proposed by Horton, short of murder, and rejected by his companion, they parted, Horton, as a sort of excuse to his own conscience, continuing up to the last to affirm, that he would never assent to the taking of life, but inwardly hoping all the while, that his own safety might yet be secured, by the other resting upon his own head the whole weight and guilt of shedding innocent blood.

A few minutes more, and Horton had again twisted the rope round


. his wrist-again had leaped the raging torrent, and once more had crept in through the window of his sleeping-room. Being there he began at once to carry out his quickly-formed plan regarding Osborne. In this unhallowed work we will leave him awhile, and glance into the chamber of his fellow apprentice.

Poor Osborne, who until this night had never known what it was to lie awake scarcely a moment after his head had been placed upon his pillow, for his mind had ever been at peace, now found himself restless and uneasy. Sleep fled his couch that night-or if she came near, it was but to mock him with her shadow, and then pass away.

Osborne could in no way account for the strange coolness of his master, and the undisguised displeasure of his mistress-even the smiling Flora Gray had now no smile for him.

" Why should I worry myself," he said-" why annoy myself thus about a circumstance of which I cannot even guess the cause? In the morning I will ask my master openly what I have done to offend him. And only to think now, all my clever plans about diving, swimming, and -" for a moment the shadow of sleep flitted before his eyes in forms fantastic. He felt that he was not asleep-and yet, strange dreamings seized upon his senses. Now he fancied he was the greatest swimmer in the world- now he was floating upon the surface of the flood, gazing up into the bright sunny heavens-there he saw his master's lovely child-then a hand seemed to seize and drag him to the bottom of the river-here old Father Thames accosting him as his own son, told him "to care for nought on earth but to trust in him !" Then taking him by the hand, he shewed the vast treasures he had been hoarding up for centuries- there were gold, and silver, and sparkling jewels; and in the midst he again saw his master's child-then she vanished, but the treasure remained, and Father Thames said, "All these, my son, I will give to thee- but thou must love me-must- !" The vision was no more. Osborne again finding himself tossing and turning about on his uneasy couch, said,

" I wonder why our master has this night, for the first time, taken the keys of the outer door into his own room; at all events it shews he no longer intends to let his apprentices go in and out as early as they like. The Bridge-shooter will wait in vain in Southwark for his pupil-well, I cannot help it-I will at once abandon the idea altogether-many a man-has-lived long enough-who-could-not-sw-im." He was again in a doze, and again was his former vision floating through his troubled brain.

It was strange, but at the very moment he had thus given up all thoughts of being able to meet the Bridge-shooter, other agents were unconsciously at work to bring about that very meeting. Osborne had this time slept so long that Aurora was preparing to set her foot upon the threshold of the day-when just as he was dreaming for the hundredth time, that Father Thames was taking him by the hand, he seemed made suddenly conscious that a real hand was on his shoulder; he felt himself violently shaken, and opening his eyes he started up in his bed, bewildered and astonished, for there he beheld his master with a lamp in his hand standing by his bedside.

" Hush !" said the merchant, placing his finger upon his lip ; "get up .


quickly, but silently. I have an affair requiring haste, and secrecy. Take this letter to where it is addressed-take this money, too, for you must hire a boat. Your further instructions will be given you at the end of your journey. There is the key of the outward door. The moment you are dressed, begone-but mind you make no noise; I would have none here, not even my wife, know of your going until you be fairly gone." Saying this the merchant extinguished the lamp, and then left the room. Osborne listened almost breathlessly, as he heard the merchant descending stealthily down the stairs: in a moment all was still as death.

"Well," said Edward, almost in a whisper, as if fearing to break the spell, "this is the strangest dream of all-for I could swear that I am awake ;" he rubbed his eyes as he said, "and yet this is certainly my room-there is the window through which the grey tint of morn is peeping. But these," he continued, and he looked with astonishment, for in his hands he could see the letter and the key, and before him on the bed lay the purse of money. " No, no, it is no dream: but what can it all mean? No matter--it is my duty to obey, not trouble myself about my master's motives-' quickly and silently,' he said-he shall be obeyed. A mouse shall make more noise than I- aswallow travel less quickly."

A few, a very few minutes saw Osborne fully prepared. He placed the letter and the purse carefully in his pouch, and -with the key in one hand and his shoes in the other, that his footfall should make no noise, the apprentice now descended the stairs as stealthily as the merchant had done a few minutes before. Although Osborne placed the key in the lock with all the care of a professed housebreaker, yet the lock would creak, and the hinges of the door seemed to say-" Where there is secrecy there is guilt." At all events Osborne felt uncomfortable for the moment, nor did he quite recover his composure until he had hurried on nearly half across the bridge. Every house was closed, and the heavy dewdrops hung like tears upon the gay flowers of yesterday, and now weighed down their heads, as if in grief at the day of sorrow about to break upon one, the fairest of the land. All looked cold, dark, and wretched. As he approached the Southwark end of the bridge, he fancied he heard the sound od a lute, as if descending from the skies; but his head was so full of his late fantastic dream, and the strange visit of his master, that he at first believed it to be but the creation of an overheated imagination-but no ! at every step the sound increased. He had now gained the opening of the Bridge-gate Tower, adorned as it then was by the withering heads of those who had fallen, sacrificed to the hate or vengeance of a blood- thirsty tyrant.

The sound of the lute suddenly ceased, and Osborne started in actual affright; for in the uncertain light of the coming day, he fancied he saw one of the heads descend from the tall spike on which it had stood, and then gaze down upon him from over the parapet of that tower of death. In a moment more, and the sound of his own name struck upon his ear. " It is well," said the voice from the tower, " it is well; but whither goest thou this way ?"



Edward for an instant stood spell-bound, but was soon relieved from his fright by hearing the well-known screeching laugh of the Cripple of the Bridge. "Be not afraid, lad-it is I, thy friend, here snug at home, surrounded by my children," and he pointed up to the ghastly heads; " they are poor quiet souls now, and give but little trouble to any one. But tell me, whither goest thou ?"

" I know not, Willy," replied Osborne, at once recovering himself, and now remembering that in his hurry to obey his master's commands, he had taken the worst of all methods of doing so, for he had forgotten to read the address upon the letter; he drew it forth, and was about to answer the Cripple's question, when his master's injunction recurred to him: "quickly and silently," he murmured; then aloud he said-" I cannot tell thee, Willy-that is, I must not--so fare thee well."

Ha, ha ! ho, ho! he, he- !" laughed the Cripple. "Right, boy, right, do as the world does; turn your back upon your friends when you don't want them." Osborne had turned to retrace his steps, finding his orders indicated an opposite direction.

" Go thy way in peace," said the Cripple; " thou hast my blessing- all is ready for thee; he has been waiting an hour past; if you would be safe, be quick."

Osborne, scarcely heeding what the other said, started at a run, nor did he cease his rapid course until he found himself at the Old Swan Stairs. Now he was more astonished than ever, for there stood Billy- the-bridge-shooter, anxiously waiting in one of the best boats, and ready to push off at a moment's notice. " Be quick, Master Edward," said the lad; " it is broad daylight, and we should have been a couple of miles above bridge ere this."

Edward jumped into the boat; the Bridge-shooter pushed off into the middle of the stream, then seizing the oars, plied them so effectually, that in a minute more they were well upon their course.

Osborne looked back upon the bridge, and there plainly saw the Cripple running from one to the other, shaking all the tall poles with their ghastly heads upon them, as if in token of his approval at Edward's departure. " It vill be a heavy pull, Master Edward," said the lad, "vhen the tide turns; for it's more nor a mile, I guess, to Putney, isn't it?"

" Putney !" said Osborne, surprised; "how knew you I was thither bound ?"

"Vy, didn't you tell me so," replied the other; " that is, the boy you sent vith the money, did."

"I sent no boy, nor money either!"

"Didn't you, though ! Vell, then, how could I a hired this boat, do you think, if you had not ? And how could I a guessed that I vos to be at the Swan-stairs, instead of the Southwark side, as ve settled; and vos then to row you to Putney ?"

"As you seem to know more of my affairs than I do myself," said Osborne, "perhaps, too, you can tell me to whom I am going ?"

" To be sure I can," was the reply; "ve're a going to old daddy Cromvell, Lord Thomas's father-the blacksmith that vos-the brever vot is, and precious nice ale he does brew-there's no pizen in that; no, no; all pure malt-no hops there; no, nor no brimstone neither." .



It appears almost incredible that a time could ever have been when hops, so highly valued now, so carefully trained and cultured in our days, for the sole purpose of adding value to our far-famed London porter, were considered a vile adulteration, and laws were actually passed making it a heavy crime for brewers to mix either hops or brimstone with their malt.

It was evident to Osborne, although inexplicable how it could have, or why it had, occurred, that a messenger had been sent to his new acquaintance, and by some one who appeared to know both his movements, as well as the intentions and wishes of his master. Expecting that some of the mystery would be cleared up when he should have reached Putney, he, for the present, determined to dismiss the perplexing subject from his mind.

The sun was now shining out magnificently, and as Billy-the-bridge- shooter, had already had a good pull, Osborne, who was himself no bad waterman, now insisted upon taking his turn at the oars. His attempt gained great praise from his companion, who declared, " that if he would but feather his oars a leetle more, there were few commoners" (by which he meant not professed watermen) " who could beat him." Praise is ever sweet, come from what quarter it may, and ever proves, although the gentlest, still the strongest goad to exertion, mentally or bodily; so Edward, being praised, pulled away harder than ever, and soon they found themselves at Chelsea, opposite the old church, which is still standing near the present Battersea bridge, then a ferry.

It now struck them, for the first time, that they had had no breakfast; but Billy had not forgotten what they might want, so steering to the Battersea side, they landed in the fields, and were soon seated upon the luxuriant grass, discussing the contents of a certain basket the Bridge-shooter had drawn from the stern of the boat. They rested here nearly an hour; and it was here that the Bridge-shooter acquainted Osborne with his old mother's peculiar fancy for being considered a witch -it was a dangerous fancy in those days.-" But," as he said, " all human beings have their veek pints, and this is hern. It makes her happy, poor old soul, so I lets her have her vay; but it costs me an uncommon deal of trouble to keep her out of harm. But don't think, Master Edward, that she's a real witch; Lord bless you, no! she's no more a witch than I'm a conjuror, and I don't think I'm much of that."

After they had thoroughly rested themselves, nothing would satisfy William, as Osborne now called the Bridge-shooter, but he must give the apprentice some idea of what swimming was. In a few minutes more, and he was in Adam's native garb, and floating like a fish upon the silver Thames. First he swam on one side, then on the other- then he turned over head and heels, and performed a thousand strange antics; now his head was above the water, now his heels-and now he disappeared altogether. At last he said-" Master Edward, pick up a stone that you will know again, and chuck it as far as ever you can into the vorter."

Osborne did as he was directed, and having a strong arm, the stone flew an enormous distance before it fell into the stream.



William kept his eye steadfastly fixed upon the spot where it had descended, and swimming there, disappeared beneath the tide.

So long did he remain under the water, that Osborne at last became dreadfully alarmed; he hurried to the boat, not knowing what to do for the best, when, just as he was putting his foot upon it-not more than three yards from him, up rose the lad, with the large stone held between his teeth.

" There, Master Edward, you see I can svim as vell vith my head under vorter as above it. You see I vent down there, and I comed up here; that's vot I calls svimming: and you shall do all that too, in less nor a veek, or my name's not Villiam."

The Bridge-shooter now insisted upon Osborne commencing his lessons that very hour; and while he was preparing, he said-" Remember, all men are much more corky than they thinks; and it's not so easy to sink, as vun imagines. To keep your head above vorter, keep your arms under it. Ven you vont to dive, stick your chin into your chest; and ven you vonts to come up again, throw your head back, and up you pops. Strike vell out vith your arms, your legs, and feet, all at vunce, and never be afraid-it's fear vot drowns a man, not the vorter. Now, I'll lead you gently out into deep vorter; turn your face right up to the skies, and you vill see how easy it is to float as upright as a dart."

So much confidence had Edward in his instructor, that he obeyed him implicitly; and, to his infinite satisfaction, he found all the lad had told him come to pass. Before they quitted the water, Osborne had made such progress, that he now could not only keep himself afloat, but also felt, that that element which had formerly been his greatest dread, would, by this newly-acquired art, ere long, become one of his chief delights.

So pleased was Osborne with the advance he had made, and so charmed was the instructor with his own cleverness in teaching, and his pupil's aptness in learning, that both entered their boat in the highest state of mutual satisfaction.

Having safely conveyed them to Putney, where old Walter Cromwell received Edward with a hearty welcome, telling him, that all his old friend Hewet desired in his letter should be done; and having given orders to make Edward's humble friend comfortable for that night, we must there leave them for awhile, and return once more to OLD LONDON BRIDGE.