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London Bridge Is Falling Down
They were approaching town from the Southwark side of the river. There was a flighty September wind, smelling of rain. Dusk had almost become night when the two-horse post-chaise from Dover, driven at the usual mad pace of such expensively hired vehicles, went clattering and bouncing along the cobbles of Borough High Street towards London Bridge.
That post-chaise contained two passengers, a fashionably dressed young lady and a fashionably dressed young man sitting in the corners as far as possible from each other; and these passengers bounced too. Carriages were equipped with springs nowadays, but they bounced all the same. The young lady seized at a window-strap to steady herself. In her low, sweet voice she whispered a hearty curse.
Instantly her companion, very haughty-seeming, became a drawling man of the world.
"Pray, madam," he said, "try to moderate your transports of joy."
"I have paid for this luxury. They'll give me my money's worth if they kill the horses."
The young lady was in a passion and very near weeping.
"I wish you would die. I wish you would catch the smallpox. Lord, lord, I don't know what I wish. Not content with abducting me—"
"Abducting you, madam? I am taking you home to your uncle, that is all. Have you any notion in what sort of French establishment you were lodged?"
"I am quite well able to look to myself, I thank you. This sudden fear for my virtue—"
"Come, madam. I am not concerned with your virtue or any woman's."
The girl smote her fist against the glass of the window.
"No, you would not be," she said furiously and inconsistently. "You are of the very sort and kind who would not be. My uncle paid you well for this, I daresay?"
"To be sure he did. Else why should I have risked my life? Yet you were frightened, Peg. Confess it."
"I will not confess it. 'Tis a monstrous lie. 'Paid, paid, paid!' Is there anything on earth you would not engage to do for money?"
"Yes, madam. Contrary to the humour of our times and indeed to my own principles, I would not love Peg Ralston for money."
"Oh!" cried the girl addressed as Peg.
And they looked at each other.
Here in Southwark, at a veer of the wind, you could already sniff the City-smoke rising in a palpable black cloud at the other side of the Thames. Here in Southwark, with most men abed at gusty nightfall, you could hear little except the crashing of iron-shod wheels on cobbles as the post-chaise flew towards London Bridge. Only a few fish-oil lamps, one supposed to be set burning at each seventh house but most of them unlighted, threw gleams into kennel-filth and gave them glimpses of each other's faces.
Miss Mary Margaret Ralston, a tall girl and very well shaped, again clutched at the window-strap when she made as if to rise. The tears in her eyes went deeper than mere rage; essentially, under her mannerisms, she was gentle and good-hearted and without guile, though she would have denied this and believed herself to be a past-mistress at all deceits.
Miss Ralston's eyes had irises of the true, rare, jet-black colour, vivid with glistening whites against a rose-leaf complexion and a strikingly pretty face. She sat muffled up in a travelling cloak, its hood back to show the straw hat with the cherry-coloured ribbon. No wig or powder disfigured her sleek light-brown hair; such fripperies were worn only by men in the year 1757. Yet her face was as heavily painted as usual, having a small black beauty-patch on the left cheek-bone. This unmaidenly practice, combined with such manifest bodily charms, had a strong if different effect on every man she met.
There was one reason why Mr. Garrick, a staid character but a shrewd man of business, had offered her the chance she craved at Drury Lane Playhouse. There was another reason why Sir Mortimer Ralston, when he heard of this offer, fell into a choleric fit for which he had to be bled. There was a third (and most understandable) reason for the feelings of young Mr. Jeffrey Wynne, now brooding beside her in the carriage.
'Rot her soul,' Mr. Wynne was thinking.
And yet his heart misgave him.
"Peg—" he began in a very different tone.
"Foh! Get away from me!"
"As you please, madam."
"And as though I had been in the least danger. That establishment at Versailles, into which you broke like a common thief, was none other than the school for the French King's private theatre."
"Your pardon, madam. It was none other than the school for the French King's private brothel. Madame de Pompadour keeps it as shrewdly as any bawd in Leicester Fields."
"Mr. Wynne, you shame me."
"Yes, madam. That is the true reason for these megrims of yours, and all the tears now. When I was surprised and set on by every servant in the cursed place, all ten of 'em, what could I do but throw you over my shoulder and run for it? Was it my fault if your skirts flew above your head and somewhat impaired your dignity at our taking-off?"
"Now 'fore God, Mr. Wynne!"
"'Fore truth, madam."
"It was no ridiculous figure you cut, I suppose? I am as tall as you; don't deny it. I am far more brave than you. Foh! To shrink and run from a parcel of Frenchmen, more than half of them women!"
"I will run, madam, when the odds are even three to one. I will run with right good will, be assured, when the odds are ten to one. Peg, Peg! Pray use good sense."
"Good sense!" cried the romantic-minded Miss Ralston. To do her justice, she scorned good sense for herself as much as she scorned it for others. "At last I apprehend, Mr. Jeffrey Wynne, why you resigned your commission in the Army. Or else they would not have you; they cashiered you. Merciful heaven, should I ever have fancied myself in love with such a caitiff. To shrink and shiver like any silly woman. To flee from the likes of Johnny Crapaud."
Ungallantly Mr. Wynne extended his forefinger and shook it under Miss Ralston's nose.
"Now hark'ee, Peg," he said, with a slight roar in his voice. "It is well enough for all stay-at-homes to sneer at Johnny Crapaud. You don't have to fight him."
"Foh, for shame."
"We are cock-a-hoop today, we idiot English. When a poor devil of an admiral merely defeats a French fleet without destroying it utterly, our lords of the Sea Office must have him shot for cowardice on his own quarterdeck. That was folly, Peg; that many think it a scandal must be small consolation to the kinfolk of Admiral Byng; we may live to repent such heroics."
"Good sir," and she lifted one shoulder, "do spare me your philosophic discourse and your long words. Or keep them for my uncle Mortimer. I have no patience."
"None; you are too flighty and too desirable. I do not protest, in general, that so often you think and speak as a jackass might—"
"Oh, give me strength."
"Though you have wits enough, madam, when you care to use them. But I myself will not be transformed into a jackass, which is what you are always contriving. Have done with it"
"Go away," commanded a shivering Miss Ralston. "Your wig is awry; you are most horrid silly, and I hate you. Go away!"
A lurch of the post-chaise threw them together. Instantly they both drew back into corners. Mr. Wynne folded his arms under his own cloak; Miss Ralston uptilted her pretty nose. Each had hurt the other badly; each knew it, and was conscience-stricken. But Jeffrey Wynne would not retract a word; the girl had never learned how to retract. In their passion to behave as they thought they ought to behave, both la-di-da and powerfully stately, Mr. Wynne succeeded better: his long, sardonic face, green-eyed and sharply intelligent, matched his words as well as his thoughts.
And yet he spoiled the effect. He seized at the offending wig, a white bagwig tied with dark ribbon at the back of the neck, and jammed down his three-cornered hat Whereupon, catching her eye, with a bang he lowered the window on that side and thrust out his head as though wishing to be decapitated by the oncoming gateway at London Bridge.
That this whole mood changed in an instant was due to something he saw or heard. Coachman and postilion must have seen it too. A long whip cracked. The postilion swore.
"Jeffrey," Miss Ralston twitched round, "what's amiss now? What ails you?"
There was no reply.
Just ahead, where the Borough High Street opened out in a half-circle of shuttered shops and two tavern-signs on the right, loomed the dark mouth of a gateway in a squat tower with battlements. They should have gone thundering under that gate, out across wooden planks bolted together ten inches thick. For well over five hundred years, since the time of King John, the same stone bridge of nineteen stone arches had spanned the Thames from here to the foot of Fish Street Hill on the City bank.
Grown shaky in its old age, often gutted by fire from the City shore and repaired at heavy cost, it was lined on either side with tallish crazy-built houses whose heads almost touched and were shored up with horizontal beams to prevent them from toppling inwards on a crush of wheeled vehicles by day. Flood and ebb tides roared through its narrow arches for a fall of six feet between water-level above-bridge and water-level below it, so that to 'shoot' the arches by wherry became dangerous or impossible. For it stood sixty feet above the rapids, which claimed a score of drowned victims each year.
And now ...
"Jeffrey dear, what is it? I vow I shall die of curiousness if you don't speak."
Mr. Wynne drew his head in from the window.
"Peg," he answered, "I have heard something I never thought to hear."
"I have heard silence on London Bridge."
It was not precisely silence. The water still roared beneath the arches, as it had roared five hundred years ago. But he did not mean this, as she well knew. He spoke of the hive, the community, the bustle of folk who had lived and worked and died since King John's time.
"There does not appear," he said, suddenly with so odd a look that Peg Ralston peered at him, "there does not appear to be a living soul on the bridge. Or any light at all, except—"
"Hold, there!" called a voice in their path. "Hold!"
"Whup-ho!" said the coachman's voice. There was a hiss of the brake-shoe; the post-chaise swayed, clattered amid volleying oaths, and ground to a halt.
The tall girl bounced up, her delicate complexion flushed between excitement and alarm, and thrust her head out of the right-hand window as Mr. Wynne was again doing on the left.
At the entrance to the bridge, swinging a lanthorn, loomed a foot-soldier in high pointed grenadier cap with royal insignia. To Peg it meant only another of the swarming military. But the weather-faded red coat and blue braid, no less than buff waistcoat and breeches above high black gaiters, identified him to Jeffrey as being of the 1st Foot Guards, a regiment often quartered at the Tower nearby.
Hesitant, uncertain, yet as stolid as though under fire, the guardsman marched out and addressed Jeffrey.
"Sir," he said, "where d'ye come from?"
"From Dover. What does it matter?"
"Sir, d'ye lodge on London Bridge?"
"In a rat-hole like this? Is it likely? But what does that matter either?"
"Sir, this is Friday night On Monday they'll begin demolishing all houses on the bridge."
"Demolishing—?" Mr. Wynne stopped short.
"By your leave, sir, I'd best fetch my officer."
It was not necessary to do this. A door opened in the gatehouse wall, emitting light as well as an officer whose single epaulet marked him as a captain. He was a stout young man with drink-pouched eyes but a reasonably affable manner, though he had risen from supper with a half-gnawed mutton-chop in one hand and a half-finished glass of claret in the other.
Jeffrey Wynne, without turning from the window, reached out and seized the girl's shoulder.
"Peg," he whispered, "I am acquainted with that officer. He must not see you. Crouch down! Draw your cloak above your head and crouch down. Don't ask why or debate the matter! Do as I bid you!"
Peg, breathing quickly, did not ask why; she never debated when there was something (often to her mysterious) which to him seemed so urgent. She overdid her part, actress-fashion, by yanking up the hood of the cloak, crushing her straw hat, and falling straight back against the cushions like a woman drunk or dead. But at least she obeyed instantly. The young captain, emerging a moment later into a glow of lanthorns and carriage-lamps, stopped and stared.
"Jeff Wynne, by all that's holy," he said in high pleasure. "Come, this is well met! What's the bother here?"
"Your servant, Tubby. There is no bother. I but wondered at the reason for a guard on London Bridge. Has the old song come true? Is it falling down at last?"
"Near to falling down, split my bottom," said Captain Tobias Beresford, with a comfortable belch. "To take away the houses will widen it for a press of carts and wagons that's got quite out of hand. They have no choice." He gestured upriver. "Westminster Bridge is too far away. Blackfriars Bridge, only a builder's dream and not yet begun, will be still further away. This old 'un, widened and with the weight of houses gone, may take years to fall." Abruptly he paused. "Come, Jeff, don't you know all this? Where have you been these months and months past?"
"I have been in France."
"Damme, my boy, you can't have been in France. We're at war with 'em."
"I am aware of that, Tubby. When have we not been at war with 'em? Yet I have been in France all the same."
"Oh, ay? In secret, like?"
"In secret, Tubby, and in search of someone who proved devilish difficult to find."
"Oh, ay." Captain Beresford looked vastly relieved. "You're about your old games, no doubt, as you used to be for the magistrate at Bow Street Office. Well, good luck. It's more than I have."
"But the people, Tubby—the people who live on the bridge. What of the people?"
"Well, what of 'em?" Captain Beresford demanded. "That's one cause we're here. They've had a full month's warning to take their goods and quit the houses. Most have gone already; you never heard such a wailing and taking-on, in especial from the old 'uns who say they're poor and have nowhere to go. If any are left by Monday morning, we're to turn 'em out with the bayonet."
"Is it so?"
"It is so, take my oath for it. But many of 'em come skulking back a time or two, to try if they can creep into their old houses and swear they must remain by right of possession. That's another cause we're here, to drive 'em away again, and a cursed nuisance it is. This fellow should never have stopped you, though; he's stupid. (You're stupid, fellow!) Good God, Jeff, what's the matter?"
Once more the damp wind veered, carrying soots and smudges. Jeffrey Wynne, casting aside his cloak, half opened the door as if he meant to jump down. The lantern-light fell on a long-skirted coat of plum-coloured velvet. Though of fine quality, it was far from new. At his left hip, beneath the skirt of the coat, swung a smallsword in a silver-mounted Morocco-leather scabbard.
"Tubby," he said, "near one of the openings in the blocks of buildings towards the far side—hard by Nonsuch House, I think—there is a print-seller's called the Magic Pen. An old woman, so very old you must have remarked her if you saw her, either lodges or did lodge above that shop. Tubby, is the woman still there?"
"Now how a pox should I know? I've not seen her. What concern have you with an old woman on London Bridge?"
"None." Mr. Wynne hesitated. "No true concern, when all's said. But once, in some sense, she served my grandfather when our fortunes were good. Besides, it seems a most barbarous thing to turn these people from their homes."
"She's an old servant, hey?"
"In some sense, yes."
"Well, the feeling does you credit. I'm a man of tenderness too, split my bottom. The pin-and-needle makers are of some use, I grant; there are ladies who come from as far away as St. James's to buy good wares cheap of the pin-and-needle makers. But the others—pah! If any suffer loss or hardship here, 'tis the Bridge House Estate; they'll be out of pocket nine hundred pound a year in rents."
"That is all you have to tell me?"
"It's all I know to tell you," Captain Beresford answered in a huff. "Now drive on if you must, or stay and crack a bottle if you will."
"I much regret, Tubby, that I may not linger. Coachman, drive on."
"Stay but a moment more, Jeff!"
Captain Beresford moved his shoulders. Still holding mutton-chop and glass of wine, he glanced suddenly behind him, and then began slowly to turn round and round. The expression on his face was matched in the eyes of the guardsman with the lanthorn.
"If you'll not linger here, Jeff," he said, "then you'll not linger on the bridge either?"
"Why not? Is it forbidden?"
"Not by order, no. Still, I want no more of these odd noises by night; nor does the officer at the bridge-foot end. The men don't like it. If I was a cursed imagining fellow like you, which thank fortune I ain't, I could call this a cursed ghosty place and think things were walking. Hey?"
"It is full of dead men's bones, Tubby. You need feel no surprise if it be also full of ghosts. A sweet good-night to you. Coachman, drive on!"
Excerpted from The Demoniacs by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1962 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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