Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 31

The walk — London’s Cheape — Street of the Lombards — Strange bridge — Main arch — The roaring gulf — The boat — Cly-faking — A comfort — The book — The blessed woman — No trap.

So I set out on my walk to see the wonders of the big city, and, as chance would have it, I directed my course to the east. The day, as I have already said, had become very fine, so that I saw the great city to advantage, and the wonders thereof: and much I admired all I saw; and, amongst other things, the huge cathedral, standing so proudly on the most commanding ground in the big city; and I looked up to the mighty dome, surmounted by a golden cross, and I said within myself, ‘That dome must needs be the finest in the world’; and I gazed upon it till my eyes reeled, and my brain became dizzy, and I thought that the dome would fall and crush me; and I shrank within myself, and struck yet deeper into the heart of the big city.

‘O Cheapside! Cheapside!’ said I, as I advanced up that mighty thoroughfare, ‘truly thou art a wonderful place for hurry, noise, and riches! Men talk of the bazaars of the East — I have never seen them — but I daresay that, compared with thee, they are poor places, silent places, abounding with empty boxes, O thou pride of London’s east! — mighty mart of old renown! — for thou art not a place of yesterday:— long before the Roses red and white battled in fair England, thou didst exist — a place of throng and bustle — place of gold and silver, perfumes and fine linen. Centuries ago thou couldst extort the praises even of the fiercest foes of England. Fierce bards of Wales, sworn foes of England, sang thy praises centuries ago; and even the fiercest of them all, Red Julius himself, wild Glendower’s bard, had a word of praise for London’s ‘Cheape,’ for so the bards of Wales styled thee in their flowing odes. Then, if those who were not English, and hated England, and all connected therewith, had yet much to say in thy praise, when thou wast far inferior to what thou art now, why should true-born Englishmen, or those who call themselves so, turn up their noses at thee, and scoff thee at the present day, as I believe they do? But, let others do as they will, I, at least, who am not only an Englishman, but an East Englishman, will not turn up my nose at thee, but will praise and extol thee, calling thee mart of the world — a place of wonder and astonishment! — and, were it right and fitting to wish that anything should endure for ever, I would say prosperity to Cheapside, throughout all ages — may it be the world’s resort for merchandise, world without end.

And when I had passed through the Cheape I entered another street, which led up a kind of ascent, and which proved to be the street of the Lombards, called so from the name of its first founders; and I walked rapidly up the street of the Lombards, neither looking to the right nor left, for it had no interest for me, though I had a kind of consciousness that mighty things were being transacted behind its walls: but it wanted the throng, bustle, and outward magnificence of the Cheape, and it had never been spoken of by ‘ruddy bards’! And, when I had got to the end of the street of the Lombards, I stood still for some time, deliberating within myself whether I should turn to the right or the left, or go straight forward, and at last I turned to the right, down a street of rapid descent, and presently found myself upon a bridge which traversed the river which runs by the big city.

A strange kind of bridge it was; huge and massive, and seemingly of great antiquity. It had an arched back, like that of a hog, a high balustrade, and at either side, at intervals, were stone bowers bulking over the river, but open on the other side, and furnished with a semicircular bench. Though the bridge was wide — very wide — it was all too narrow for the concourse upon it. Thousands of human beings were pouring over the bridge. But what chiefly struck my attention was a double row of carts and wagons, the generality drawn by horses as large as elephants, each row striving hard in a different direction, and not unfrequently brought to a stand-still. Oh the cracking of whips, the shouts and oaths of the carters, and the grating of wheels upon the enormous stones that formed the pavement! In fact, there was a wild burly-burly upon the bridge, which nearly deafened me. But, if upon the bridge there was a confusion, below it there was a confusion ten times confounded. The tide, which was fast ebbing, obstructed by the immense piers of the old bridge, poured beneath the arches with a fall of several feet, forming in the river below as many whirlpools as there were arches. Truly tremendous was the roar of the descending waters, and the bellow of the tremendous gulfs, which swallowed them for a time, and then cast them forth, foaming and frothing from their horrid wombs. Slowly advancing along the bridge, I came to the highest point, and there I stood still, close beside one of the stone bowers, in which, beside a fruit-stall, sat an old woman, with a pan of charcoal at her feet, and a book in her hand, in which she appeared to be reading intently. There I stood, just above the principal arch, looking through the balustrade at the scene that presented itself — and such a scene! Towards the left bank of the river, a forest of masts, thick and close, as far as the eye could reach; spacious wharfs, surmounted with gigantic edifices; and, far away, Caesar’s Castle, with its White Tower. To the right, another forest of masts, and a maze of buildings, from which, here and there, shot up to the sky chimneys taller than Cleopatra’s Needle, vomiting forth huge wreaths of that black smoke which forms the canopy — occasionally a gorgeous one — of the more than Babel city. Stretching before me, the troubled breast of the mighty river, and, immediately below, the main whirlpool of the Thames — the Maelstrom of the bulwarks of the middle arch — a grisly pool, which, with its superabundance of horror, fascinated me. Who knows but I should have leapt into its depths? — I have heard of such things — but for a rather startling occurrence which broke the spell. As I stood upon the bridge, gazing into the jaws of the pool, a small boat shot suddenly through the arch beneath my feet. There were three persons in it; an oarsman in the middle, whilst a man and woman sat at the stern. I shall never forget the thrill of horror which went through me at this sudden apparition. What! — a boat — a small boat — passing beneath that arch into yonder roaring gulf! Yes, yes, down through that awful water-way, with more than the swiftness of an arrow, shot the boat, or skiff, right into the jaws of the pool. A monstrous breaker curls over the prow — there is no hope; the boat is swamped, and all drowned in that strangling vortex. No! the boat, which appeared to have the buoyancy of a feather, skipped over the threatening horror, and, the next moment, was out of danger, the boatman — a true boatman of Cockaigne that — elevating one of his sculls in sign of triumph, the man hallooing, and the woman, a true Englishwoman that — of a certain class — waving her shawl. Whether any one observed them save myself, or whether the feat was a common one, I know not; but nobody appeared to take any notice of them. As for myself, I was so excited that I strove to clamber up the balustrade of the bridge, in order to obtain a better view of the daring adventurers. Before I could accomplish my design, however, I felt myself seized by the body, and, turning my head, perceived the old fruit-woman, who was clinging to me.

‘Nay, dear! don’t — don’t!’ said she. ‘Don’t fling yourself over — perhaps you may have better luck next time!’

‘I was not going to fling myself over,’ said I, dropping from the balustrade; ‘how came you to think of such a thing?’

‘Why, seeing you clamber up so fiercely, I thought you might have had ill luck, and that you wished to make away with yourself.’

‘Ill luck,’ said I, going into the stone bower, and sitting down. ‘What do you mean? ill luck in what?’

‘Why, no great harm, dear! cly-faking perhaps.’

‘Are you coming over me with dialects,’ said I, ‘speaking unto me in fashions I wot nothing of?’

‘Nay, dear! don’t look so strange with those eyes of your’n, nor talk so strangely; I don’t understand you.’

‘Nor I you; what do you mean by cly-faking?’

‘Lor, dear! no harm; only taking a handkerchief now and then.’

‘Do you take me for a thief?

‘Nay, dear! don’t make use of bad language; we never calls them thieves here, but prigs and fakers: to tell you the truth, dear, seeing you spring at that railing put me in mind of my own dear son, who is now at Bot’ny: when he had bad luck, he always used to talk of flinging himself over the bridge; and, sure enough, when the traps were after him, he did fling himself into the river, but that was off the bank; nevertheless, the traps pulled him out, and he is now suffering his sentence; so you see you may speak out, if you have done anything in the harmless line, for I am my son’s own mother, I assure you.’

‘So you think there’s no harm in stealing?’

‘No harm in the world, dear! Do you think my own child would have been transported for it, if there had been any harm in it? and, what’s more, would the blessed woman in the book here have written her life as she has done, and given it to the world, if there had been any harm in faking? She, too, was what they call a thief and a cut-purse; ay, and was transported for it, like my dear son; and do you think she would have told the world so, if there had been any harm in the thing? Oh, it is a comfort to me that the blessed woman was transported, and came back — for come back she did, and rich too — for it is an assurance to me that my dear son, who was transported too, will come back like her.’

‘What was her name?’

‘Her name, blessed Mary Flanders.’

‘Will you let me look at the book?’

‘Yes, dear, that I will, if you promise me not to run away with it.’

I took the book from her hand; a short thick volume, at least a century old, bound with greasy black leather. I turned the yellow and dog’s-eared pages, reading here and there a sentence. Yes, and no mistake! HIS pen, his style, his spirit might be observed in every line of the uncouth-looking old volume — the air, the style, the spirit of the writer of the book which first taught me to read. I covered my face with my hand, and thought of my childhood. . . .

‘This is a singular book,’ said I at last; ‘but it does not appear to have been written to prove that thieving is no harm, but rather to show the terrible consequences of crime: it contains a deep moral.’

‘A deep what, dear?’

‘A— but no matter, I will give you a crown for this volume.’

‘No, dear, I will not sell the volume for a crown.’

‘I am poor,’ said I; ‘but I will give you two silver crowns for your volume.’

‘No, dear, I will not sell my volume for two silver crowns; no, nor for the golden one in the king’s tower down there; without my book I should mope and pine, and perhaps fling myself into the river; but I am glad you like it, which shows that I was right about you, after all; you are one of our party, and you have a flash about that eye of yours which puts me just in mind of my dear son. No, dear, I won’t sell you my book; but, if you like, you may have a peep into it whenever you come this way. I shall be glad to see you; you are one of the right sort, for, if you had been a common one, you would have run away with the thing; but you scorn such behaviour, and, as you are so flash of your money, though you say you are poor, you may give me a tanner to buy a little baccy with; I love baccy, dear, more by token that it comes from the plantations to which the blessed woman was sent.’

‘What’s a tanner?’ said I.

‘Lor! don’t you know, dear? Why, a tanner is sixpence; and, as you were talking just now about crowns, it will be as well to tell you that those of our trade never calls them crowns, but bulls; but I am talking nonsense, just as if you did not know all that already, as well as myself; you are only shamming — I’m no trap, dear, nor more was the blessed woman in the book. Thank you, dear — thank you for the tanner; if I don’t spend it, I’ll keep it in remembrance of your sweet face. What, you are going? — well, first let me whisper a word to you. If you have any clies to sell at any time, I’ll buy them of you; all safe with me; I never peach, and scores a trap; so now, dear, God bless you! and give you good luck. Thank you for your pleasant company, and thank you for the tanner.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter31.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32