Old London Bridge, A Romance of the Sixteenth Century
Rodwell, G Herbert
NIGHT'S azure mantle, spangled o'er with stars, seemed heaven-upheld to canopy the earth, and screen day's glaring light from off the sleeping world, as on the summit of that tower of death, the Traitor's Gate, the Cripple sate and mused. Then, all absorbed, his fingers gently strayed from string to string o'er that poor friendly lute, which oft before had solaced weary hours, and made the gall of disappointed nature flow for a time in kindliness to man. He gazed up in the heavens, and paused to think-what wondrous tales of joy, of sorrow, virtue, and of vice, those stars might tell, were they but once to speak. Then fancy, flitting through his wandering brain, seemed, in each orb, to fix a living voice, and to his questions answered, as thus, unconsciously, the Cripple sang-
Whoo-oo-oop ! whoo-oo-oop! whoo-oo-oop ! "What, singing too, my own sweetheart," said the Cripple, turning and smiling upon an old grey owl that stood perched upon a part of the tower near him; " we have had many a night-song together, sweet one, have we not ?" Whoo-oo-oop! hooted again the owl, as if answering his inquiry. "And many we'll have yet, I hope," he added, tenderly stroking his hand down the feathers of the bird. ' What, you like it, do you, Fairy ? But I'm sure you do, or your wings had not been thus outspread. Do you know, Fairy, I have often wondered which of us twain be the most lovely-you or I ? we are marvellously handsome, both of us. Ha, ha ! ho, ho ! he, he--- !" and the poor Cripple laughed at his own conceit until the tears came into his eyes. " But the worst of you, old wife, is that you never laugh. I never yet have seen a feature of your pretty face smile once. Why not do as I do ?-the world laughs at me for my lack of beauty-I laugh at the world for it's lack of sense; but you and I have the best of it, depend upon it, for you'll ever find the book of folly bound up in the most costly casing; while the true diamond, wisdom, is mostly found in rough, unsightly clods of earth. Laugh, then, pretty one-laugh, an' you love me, dear !" Saying this, the Cripple playfully tapped his forefinger upon the bill of the owl, who for a time endured this freedom with stoic gravity; but apparently thinking he was going a little too far, spread out her wings, and was soon perched above on one of the mouldering heads that stood upon the loftiest of the pikes. " What, my old wife run away? like the world-like the world ! Spoil your wife and lose your wife-it was always so, and always will be so. Come back, you silly thing; for if King Harry sees the company you've flown to, he'll swear you're a popish bird, and hang you. Why, that's the head of John Houghton, the Prior of Charter- House, you fool ! I stuck it up there a year ago; and all around you are his brother Carthusian monks; you cannot be in company more dangerous! Come back, and prove you hate the Pope, by taking the oath of Hal's supremacy directly, or I shall have a pretty job of work; think if I have to stick my own old wife's head up as a traitor! Ha, ha! ho, ho ! he, he -!" And he chuckled at the idea. Then again seizing the
|lute, and casting a melancholy look towards the bird of the night, the Cripple sang, in a plaintive strain-|
The owl made a movement as if relenting, and about to descend upon the outstretched arm of the Cripple, but was checked by the sound of a voice. So unexpected was it, that the Cripple starting grasped his staff, and stood upon his guard. A figure appeared within the turret doorway. A moment more, and the Cripple dropping his trusty weapon, sent forth his well-known screeching laugh, for he recognised the comer-it was Edward Osborne!
" Well," said he, " this is indeed an honour the Cripple of the Bridgegate Tower could little dream of. Why, boy! you are the only living mortal that has ventured here, besides myself, for I know not how many a-day- So few that do get up here, ever get down again, that I'm not over pestered by calling friends. What ails you ?--you tremble, boy !"
" I do," replied Edward, " I own I do, not only at finding myself thus suddenly surrounded by all these ghastly evidences of violence and death -but I have had my nerves unstrung-have had my reason made to totter, my eyes to doubt their power of vision-or seeing, see not what they seem to see. Willy ! you professed, unasked, to be my friend; I now demand fulfilment of such profession. You are the last in all this mighty city that most would come to, craving a kindly favour; you are the first I have ever risked a favour from."
" Why, boy, you overpower me with your flattery !" said the poor Cripple, who smiled with evident pleasure at finding at last one soul on earth, who thought him worthy of his confidence. " What can so humble, so poor, so ugly a wretch as I am, do to pleasure one whom nature has stamped as her own especial favourite."
"Willy, they tell me you have a beauty in your mind, which far outweighs in others, their beauteousness of form."
"Ha, ha! ho, ho ! he, he ! And pray, boy, what may my great beauty be ? Wonders will never cease; the Cripple of the Bridge-gate Tower will no doubt yet be found Adonis in disguise. But, tell me, lad, and
|. tell me quickly, for I cannot too soon know my charms, what may my wondrous beauty be ?"|
"TRUTH !" replied Osborne.
" Truth !" echoed the Cripple; " and is Truth, then, in your eyes, so dazzling bright, that it blinds you to all else around ? But in bestow ing on me that gem, you raise me to the very throne of Solomon; you make me the king of wisdom; for believe me it is only the really wise, who always act by truth: your liars and your rogues, and these are terms synonymous, for a lie can lie in deed as well as word, are ever fools-they always in the end, by their deceit, lose tenfold what they gain-mark that through life, and that you'll find's a sterling truth. Now, lad, although I cannot claim the high distinction you would honour me withal, I promise one thing, for I am your friend, that what I say to you shall team with nought but truth."
"It is feeling that," said Osborne, " which now has made me seek you. I heard you singing from the tower; I waited awhile in the dark below, until I conjured up such frightful visions that I dared no longer stay alone, so mounted up the dismal winding stairs, made still more dismal as the light of night stole through the loop-holes, and caused fantastic shapes like spectres against the wall. But let us descend, for this is an awful place to put the question I would ask your truth to answer."
" Fear not," said the Cripple, " these are my children, and never tell tales of what their father says or does. What is the question ?"
" Willy," replied Osborne, drawing nearer to the Cripple, and almost whispering his words, " do you believe the dead ever again can walk this earth-can come again so palpable to sight, that to doubt your eyes would be to doubt your reason ?-do you believe in ghosts ?" He had scarcely uttered the word, when he had nearly fallen over the parapet from fear, for the owl, flying down as it uttered its melancholy cry, fixed itself upon his head.
The laugh of the Cripple rather added, at that moment, to Osborne's terror, than allayed it ; but the owl having been invited by the Cripple, half flew, half walked, or fluttered, along his extended arm, and settled itself upon his shoulder
The youth, who was no coward but in affairs of superstition, and superstition was the governing power of that age, soon rallied; and the Cripple, to relieve young Osborne of his fear, having consented to descend, Edward led the way, having no wish to be left alone in such a melancholy spot, while his mind was still so much excited.
As he crept down the dark winding stairs, he heard the Cripple above bidding a kind good night to all his children, and admonishing them to watch, and not fall down asleep, as sometimes they did. The Cripple, then closing the turret door, followed Osborne to the lodge below.
Although it was the month of May, and warm too for that time of year, a blazing fire was burning. A lamp was soon lighted, when the owl began to whoop; but being kissed by the Cripple, and tossed up, it flew upon the top of an old oaken press, in a corner deep in shade, and there perched itself for the night in melancholy dignity.
The Cripple then, humming an air, hobbled about; he first hung up a thick sort of curtain over the little casement, through which he had thrust his head on the night he addressed Sir Filbut Fussy-" For," said he, " the good folk of the Bridge are mighty curious, and are for ever prying into my domestic habits-what do they expect to see ? believe me, there are many a stranger scene to be witnessed in houses I could name, and on the Bridge too, than ever passed within the Bridgegate Tower."
He next brought forth three trenchers, on one of which was a piece of salted beef, the usual food of the humbler class for more than half the year, with bread and salt, and a flagon of sweet ale; then drawing a large pot, or saucepan, that stood upon the hob, further on to the fire, he seated himself; and looked into Osborne's face; then pointing to the food, said-" Now you are more at your ease, repeat your question, and I'll answer it-that is, if it please me so to do, for I am rather wayward, and speak, or hold my tongue, by fits and starts: but warm yourself, and drink, for I know of no power to exorcise or lay your midnight spectres, half so certain as a blazing fire and a flagon of bright strong ale."
Young Osborne, who had come with a mind predisposed to believe every word the Cripple uttered, to k a right good draught of ale; then seeing his Mentor draw forth his girdle-knife, a sort of dagger, he did the same, and each, with his left hand, seizing upon the opposite sides of the salted beef-they at once severed a slice a-piece, and placed it upon their trenchers.
Osborne felt little inclination to eat, for his mind was full of the strange things he wished to lay open to the Cripple; so, placing his hand, still holding the knife. upon the table, he leant across towards his companion, and said--" If ever the dead were permitted to revisit this our earth-the dead has appeared to me !"
So solemnly did Osborne pronounce this awful conviction of his mind, that the Cripple paused from the work he was upon, and gazed in wonder at the youth.
" You know the wretch whose death I was the cause of, though justly ? Upon his sentence being passed, he made all who heard him shudder by calling loudly upon the fiends of hell to permit his dark spirit to follow me and mine, through life. He bade me guard well my midnight couch by prayer, or I should see him as sure as the clock should strike the dead hour of night. Now, Willy, although I know that Heaven's power can easily keep in check the fiends of darkness, yet, I must own, that such a denunciation, after all the horrors I had witnessed, followed too by the dreadful death he suffered, made so deep an impression upon my mind, that when night came, I listened to the tolling of St. Paul's great bell with fear and horror. I have wrought my mind to such a pitch of nervous dread, that I cannot close my eye of nights until the fatal hour be passed. Not knowing what to do, ane seeing my mistress's confessor, the father Brassinjaw, leaving our house, I foolishly entreated him to advise me. Instead of comforting, he has taken from me even the hope I had, and tells me that all I suffer is a just punishment for not before becoming one of his flock. He has
|ordered me to attend the midnight prayers in the chapel of St. Thomas- of the-Bridge ; last night I did."|
Here he was interrupted, and made to start, by the sudden boiling over of the pot, upon the fire-the frightened owl, too, gave a scream, and flew to another dark corner of the room; trifles as there were, they added not a little to his fear. The Cripple, laughing, pushed the saucepan off the fire, lifted the lid, and stirring the contents round with a wooden spoon, again covered them, and desired Osborne to proceed.
Osborne, drawing a deep breath, continued-" Yes, Willy, last night I attended at the appointed prayers: few persons were there besides the priests, and when the service was ended, I fell upon my knees to pray for ease of mind, and becoming so absorbed in the fervour of my devotions, I did not perceive all else had left the place, save one man, who was extinguishing the lights upon the altar. As I rose to quit the chapel, I was startled by seeing the figure of a man standing in a gloomy corner; he was enveloped in a dark mantle, and motionless as death. I had to pass that spot. I kept my eyes fixed upon the figure- I knew not why ; when, just within arms reach, it suddenly threw open the mantle, and there I beheld, if e'er my eyes saw truly, the ghost of him who had so lately suffered for his crimes. He stood before me in the very habit in which lie died. I covered my eyes for an instant with my hands, for I feared to look upon it, and when I had gained courage to do so, the figure was gone, but in its place I foud this written paper. In stooping to seize it, I fancied I again saw the shadow gliding down the steps leading to the crypt below. A sudden feeling of courage animatd my soul, and I would have followed, but was prevented by father Brassinjaw, who, at that moment, ascended by those very steps. I exclaimed-- Let me pass ! let me pass !-'tis there ! 'tis there !' He held me lack, and when I explained what I had seen, he smiled at my credulity, and shewed me how impossible it was that ought could have descended to the crypt, and he not see it. He told me to hasten home, and, for the future, to be obedient to whatever commands he might lay upon me, as the only means of relieving myself from the power of evil spirits, who certainly then possessed me. I did return home, but not to sleep, but to ponder over and over the contents of this paper, which I lad, unconsciously, brought from the chapel, held with convulsive power within my grasp. It is evidently written in blood; look at it-look at it, Willy, and tell me what you think ?"
The Cripple took the paper, and read it aloud-- If you would avoid the miserable fate the fiends have doomed you to, seek the right road, by consulting the witch of the marsh. To-morrow night, at ten, the moon is at the fall; be there, but be alone--remember, be alone, or a more dreadful doom awaits you, than that of the shade, which, from the grave, now warns you. No mortal must know what you this night have seen- remember !"
" Were I to say," observed the Cripple of the Bridge, " that there were no such things as ghosts or witches in this world, I should assert that, which neither you, nor wiser men than you, would credit. There must be witches, we know, or the good priests would never condemn so many poor old womnen to be burnt alive for switchcraftt; and as to ghosts, I never met with man,
|or woman, or child, who would dare deny them. The only point which staggers my reason is, why should that spirit which, while yet it was the habitant of mortal clay, called for curses upon your head, now visit the earth, not to fulfil those curses, but to warn you how to avoid their malignant power. But these are matters far too subtle for mortal ken-we must, like other miracles, receive them, nor seek to learn the power by which they are worked."|
" But how would you have me act ?" inquired Osborne.
"Go, and go unfearingly," said the Cripple; "the spirit means no harm, or it had chosen some other witch; she is, if I mistake not, the mother of your new-made friend; therefore, if she have power to raise up devils, she will have power, too, to prevent their hurting him who fought to save her. Where is her son ?"
"Oh, far away," replied Osborne. "Ever since we saved my master's child, the merchant has befriended the poor Bridge-shooter, and has now sent him, as a safeguard to the merchandize they are shipping, some miles down the river."
" And Hewet, where is he ?"
"The merchant and Horton are both at Hampton Court; for, by Cromwell's intercession, Master Hewet is now one of King Henry's merchants; he has gone to take orders from his Highness for stuffs for our new Queen's coronation."
"Then his wife is left alone; she must be very dull," said the Cripple.
"She would be," replied Osborne, "but for the kindness of Sir Filbut Fussy, who sometimes comes and reads and sings, to amuse her, for hours together."
"Indeed," said the Cripple, " he is wondrously kind !" Then again stirring the saucepan, he hummed-
' Then you advise me, Willy, to go to the marshes to-morrow night at the tenth hour," said Osborne, "and alone ?"
"I do; for who knows what the stars may portend ?" replied the Cripple. "And now home to rest; for it must be on the stroke of midnight."
Osborne turned suddenly pale, prayed to be allowed to remain until after that dreaded hour had passed. " I should be less fearful," said he, "if even my master were at home."
"Your master! curse him!" said the Cripple; "but I shall boil his head yet-I shall boil his head yet !" and then he chuckled again, and began to stir round the smoking cauldron.
"What do you mean," said Osborne, " by that disgusting phrase you are so frequently repeating ?"
" What do I mean ?" replied the Cripple, still chuckling and stirring the steaming pot; " what do I mean ?"--the deep sound of St. Paul's bell began to toll the twelfth hour, as he continued-" this is what I
|. mean," and saying which, he thrust a hook into the cauldron, and drew thence a human head!|
" Horror !" exclaimed Osborne, trembling all over; for in the features he recognised those of the Blear-eyed Bully!
"Ho, ho ! ha, ha! he, he !- foolish boy," said the Cripple, " fear it not; but I had forgotten at the moment whose head it was. It was brought this afternoon for me to prepare for being hung up upon a gibbet to-morrow, as a warning to all those dear, kind creatures, who take delight in committing murders, upon the Thames. There, there it is in again, and the lid on, so calm your fears. This is the second head I have boiled to-day, the other was often very different mould; it was that of a poor monk they executed this morning, because he would not forswear his conscience, and take an oath that the Pope was Anti-Christ, and that King Henry was so pure, that he ought to be supreme head of our Holy Church. The poor creature would have been saved; but your master's sweet friend, the blacksmith minister, the great Cromwell, who they say is soon to be a lord, swore that if the jury did not find him guilty, and hang him up, he'd hang them up instead."
Cromwell was ever a bitter enemy to the poor monks; they were executed by hundreds, and the statement of the Cripple is no fancy sketch, but a fact of history, and clearly shews how little chance there was of justice in those days; for if the jury might be thus threatened, it was not likely the judges, who were more immediately within the King's power, would be left to their own free will in pronouncing judgment. Whatever the King willed was lawful; for no matter how atrocious the crime to be committed-whether the mere cutting off the head of one wife that he might marry some favoured mistress-or burning a poor wretch because he had a conscience (a dangerous article in those days), and adding to the last agonies of that man's dreadful death, ly bringing the wife and children to the pile, that while he burnt he might witness their sufferings at his awful fate; but such was the case, but the King willed it, therefore it was lawful; or, if not, there were plenty of miscreants basking in the royal favour, to pass new acts making it so. There never was, perhaps, in any one reign since the world began, so much law and so little justice, as during the latter part of that of the heartless tyrant, Henry the Eighth. And yet never was the truth, "that out of evil cometh good," more fully exemplified; for it was to his very vices we owe the glorious reformation of our Church. Had he never discovered his marriage with the widow of his brother Arthur to have been unlawful, which, strange to say, he did not until after he had fallen madly in love with one of his wife's maids of honour, Anne Boleyn, this kingdom had still remained in thraldom to the Pope of Rome. But how was it, that after eighteen years of marriage, this most religious King happened to make so notable a discovery ? Did it arise from some sudden inspiration sent by Heaven to point out the sinful life he had been so long living with a most virtuous princess ? No; but from her handmaiden proving more virtuous than he had expected! With a heartless wretch, like Henry, impediments but added fuel to the fire of his desires, which bursting forth with renewed vigour after every check, in the end consumed all that came within its annihilating influence:
|the power of the Pope (the last but greatest), for six years had held even the temper of Henry in subjection. When, at last, the King found that truckling to the Roman Pontiff availed him nothing, and that after all the weary delay that he had endured, his haven of bliss seemed as far off as ever, he took the weapon into his own hands, and with one bold and determined stroke, severed for ever the Gordian knot which had for ages tied the fetters of Rome upon our English Kings, and made them slaves to priestcraft. The first act of his own liberty was to destroy all liberty around him. He proclaimed himself the supreme head of the Church in England; but what anomalies did his acts produce! He professed to be a Roman Catholic, yet denied the power of Rome ; he worshipped the body of that Church, but tore out its heart, for the Pope is in verity the heart of that ancient faith, for through him its whole blood flows-his cardinals and his priests are the arteries and the veins conveying the life-blood to the remotest members of the body throughout the world. Such a blow came with but an ill-grace from one like Henry, who had formerly so manfully stood up the champion of Rome against the great reformer, Martin Luther, whose voice was now thundering through the world. Indeed, so highly had the Pope approved of Henry's work, in answer to Luther, that he bestowed upon him the high-sounding title of " Defender of the Faith," which, oddly enough, has been retained by all succeeding Protestant English monarchs.|
Having thrown off the shackles of the see of Rome, it was an easy matter to find Bishops and colleges but too anxious to prove their devotion to the new head of the Anglo-Roman Church, by granting his heart's great desire, a divorce from Catherine of Arragon, and performing the holy rites of marriage between him and his late Queen's maid of honour, the fair Anne Boleyn. She being a favourer of the new doctrine, Wolsey, Fisher, and More, were soon brought to ruin or the block. The Bible was now not only printed in the English language, but high and low were commanded to read and study the holy work; and that there might be no excuse for neglecting such a duty, a law was passed, compelling the head of every church to provide a copy, to be chained to a desk within the sacred pile, for general use. Those of the humbler classes who could read, were invited to do so aloud to their more ignorant neighbours; and thus it was that the word of God first took root in the hearts of the English people. This was the second greatest step towards Protestantism, but that it should prove so, was not the intention of Henry. Now Henry, having cut off the head of the pontifical power, found the limbs but incumbrances, so began to lop them off one by one, and occasionally in greater numbers; but the time for their total annihilation had not yet arrived. The great delight of Henry seemed to be in burning those who refused to follow the Romish religion, and in hanging those who followed it too closely. If they denied his supremacy in holy matters, it was of little consequence which persuasion they followed; there were but two roads to go, the one led to the flames, the other to the gibbet.
It was, as the Cripple said, the head of one of these poor conscientious, though, perhaps, mistaken creatures, that he had that evening been fixing upon the tower, just before Osborne visited him there.
Osborne, feeling not only horror, but disgust, to see the unconcerned manner in which the Cripple fulfilled his dreadful duty, bade his companion a hearty good night, and hurried away.
There were few places in London more melancholy in appearance, than the road across Old London Bridge at midnight, the over-hanging buildings, in many places, nearly shutting out the little light the stars might wish to lend; and then the irregular line of houses, here projecting, here receding; now a deep dark recess, as if made purposely for the concealment of some lurking robber, would startle the wayfarer, making him instinctively fly to the other side for safety ; now the long tunnel-like archways would seem as portals to the realms of darkness; and, hark! what sound was that ? nought but the ever-roaring waters passing with angry speed beneath the Bridge.
Edward Osborne, whose mind, as the reader may imagine, was at this moment painfully alive to all external influences, was presently startled by hearing, at no great distance from him, sounds of sweetest music. He stopped-he listened; then creeping onwards with noiseless tread, and taking advantage of one of those deep recesses we have just noticed. he was enabled to watch, unseen, a party of dark figures, enveloped in cloaks and masks, who were performing beneath the window, as he thought, of his master's house. He had approached so close, that not a syllable escaped his ear; and thus he heard the midnight minstrels sing-
Did his ears deceive him ? No, the name of Alyce floated on the enraptured breeze, and echo, holding up her glass, reflected again the gentle sound. He could not be mistaken. But who would dare to sing thus openly the praises of his lovely mistress ? 'Tis true, that another Alyce, and with bright eyes too, dwelt on the opposite side; and she was known to use those bright eyes for other purposes than reading prayers, unless indeed such prayers as love alone can write within the Volume of imploring looks. Such were the thoughts of Edward, during the pause between the
|verses; but, as the second strain began, he fancied he must be dreaming, for surely he saw the figure of a female, half concealed, standing by the casement of his master's room; and, presently, a white hand stole gently to the latch that held the window close, and then the lattice slightly moved, as if to admit the sound more clearly; but all was evidently done with greatest caution, that those without should know not that their flattery was listened to.|
The serenaders having finished their task, or fancying they heard the night-watch coming, moved away. As they passed the spot where Osborne stood concealed, one or two of the voices sounded familiar to his ear: the only words he could distinguish, for the party moved rapidly along, were-" Be not afraid, success is certain; Alyce--" All else died away, amidst the confused noise of the falling waters.
Osborne, the moment they were past, hurried to the spot they had left, and gazed, not at his master's house, for he could not bring his mind to believe that Alyce Hewet, the angelic Alyce Hewet, could possibly be the subject of any lover's midnight adoration, but his eye was directed to the opposite dwelling: all there was still. He looked, and looked, till fancy half pictured the form of Alyce Vaughan, their young and pretty neighbour, flitting by her latticed window.
Having now quite satisfied his mind that it must be she, whose charms had called forth the praises he had heard, he opened his own door; but, as he entered, he thought he saw another figure issuing from a recess, like the one he had himself occupied, and stealthily creep along in the same direction the serenaders had taken.
His thoughts suddenly reverting to the shadowy form he had seen in the chapel, he hastily entered and closed the door.