Charles Dickens London - London Bridge
( Originally Published 1915 )
THERE are summer days in England when the air is a benediction, the sunshine a balm, and the delicate greys melting into mists of pearl a joy of the painter; when fleets of wind-filled clouds drift over the blue, their shadows mottling the lush meadows, their topsails mirrored in long stretches of burnished silver — days which are a delight to the eye and a feast to the soul.
And some of this is true of London, not only in its squares, parks, and gardens, gay with trees and flowering shrubs, but along the Great Embankment, where the stone-and-iron monsters wade knee-deep in the Thames, their broad backs freighted with countless multitudes.
It was on one of these June afternoons, and at an hour when the traffic was thickest, that I halted my cab at one end of London Bridge, touched my hat to the officer in charge, and began my story, opening up with some light, desultory talk on a variety of subjects, punctured at the critical moment by the tender of one of my choicest — one with a red-and-gold band — which he thrust between the front buttons of his coat, — cigars being fragile and pockets ungetatable in a tight-fitting uniform. I then asked permission to anchor my cab and begin work.
He looked at me calmly, took in my canvas, easel, umbrella, and folding stool, and, with a grin that covered his face from his chin to his eyebrows, said crisply:
"Well, why not?"
The cab in place and the trap unstrapped, he helping me to overcome the vagaries of my umbrella, I gave him, as is my habit, not only an account of my present laudable purpose but strove to interest him in the historical and literary data connected with the Bridge, and thus establish a closer relationship should my outdoor studio of a cab become in the near future a bone of contention between the law and the populace.
Beginning with an account of the Bridge itself — I told him how it was the oldest spanning the river, its earliest predecessor being built in the time of the Saxons in 1008; how some eighty years ago, after several structures had seen their day, John Rennee built this Colossus, placing the supporting piers some distance west of the former site, my enthusiasm increasing as I explained in detail some of the problems confronting the distinguished engineer, a bridge being something more to me than a contrivance for crossing a river.
And then, still determined on gaining his confidence (it is extraordinary how polite one is to a London Bobby) and as an immediate excuse for my blocking up the roadway, and there was not the slightest doubt that I was blocking it up I recounted in detail part of Nancy's and Noah Claypole's story as told in "Oliver Twist," pointing out "the very staircase consisting of three flights," down which the girl had hurried at midnight to meet Mr. Brownlow and Rose Maylie and from which she afterward started back home only to be killed by Bill Sikes. All of which Bobby absorbed with his left ear cupped toward me, his eyes roaming over the hurrying mob, alert and ready for immediate action, his brain intent upon the constantly shifting kaleidoscope before him.
While he was disentangling a push-cart from the hind wheel of a furniture van, I made an inventory of the several parts of the Bridge itself, comparing them with the description given in "Oliver Twist," especially the left-hand stairs where the meeting took place, and which are the same today as in Nancy's time. "Part of the bridge; consisting of three flights. Just below the end of the second, going down, the stone wall on the left terminates in an ornamental pilaster facing towards the Thames. At this point the lower steps widen : so that a person turning that angle of the wall is necessarily unseen by any others on the stairs who chance to be above him, if only a step."
Nor was it difficult with the stage-setting before me to recall the scene itself.
"The church clocks chimed three-quarters past eleven," runs the chronicle, " as two figures emerged on London Bridge. One, which advanced with a swift and rapid step, was that of a woman, who looked eagerly about her as though in quest of some expected object; the other figure was that of a man, who slunk along in the deepest shadow he could find, and, at some distance, accommodated his pace to hers : stopping when she stopped : and, as she moved again, creeping stealthily on: but never allowing himself, in the ardour of his pursuit, to gain upon her footsteps. Thus, they crossed the bridge, from the Middlesex to the Surrey shore : when the woman, apparently disappointed in her anxious scrutiny of the foot-passengers, turned back. The movement was sudden; but he who watched her was not thrown off his guard by it; for, shrinking into one of the recesses which surmount the piers of the bridge, and leaning over the parapet the better to conceal his figure, he suffered her to pass by, on the opposite pavement. When she was about the same distance in advance as she had been before, he slipped quietly down, and followed her again. At nearly the centre of the bridge, she stopped. The man stopped too."
Then follows the interview and Nancy's story; one so fateful in its consequences to her.
"After a time she arose, continues the text, "and with feeble and tottering steps ascended to the street. The astonished listener remained motionless on his post for some minutes afterwards, and having ascertained, with many cautious glances round him, that he was again alone, crept slowly from his hiding place, and returned, stealthily and in the shade of the wall, in the same manner as he had descended.
"Peeping out, more than once, when he reached the top, to make sure that he was unobserved, Noah Claypole darted away at his utmost speed, and made for the Jew's house as fast as his legs would carry him."
I worked on until quite late, pausing now and then to study the glide and thrust of the great city weaving patterns of joy and suffering into the carpet of the broad high-way. And when the shadows began to fall and the night to settle, and as in Nancy's time, " a mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the fires that burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharves, and rendering darker and more indistinct the murky buildings on the banks," and "the old smoke-stained store houses on either side, rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, and frowned sternly upon water too black to reflect even their lumbering shapes," I folded my trap and again sought Bobby.
He was leaning against the parapet, watching the traffic. Now and then he would nod to some one he knew, or wave his hand as a warning to an impetuous driver, his glance sweeping the broad road thronged with hurrying thousands.
As he caught sight of me, his face lighted up and he made a quick step in my direction.
"Rough part of London, isn't it?" I began.
"Yes — 'long down by the river; not here."
"Of course you've been on the force some time?" I continued.
"Oh, yes, about twenty years."
The talk now drifted into his daily duties — the hours he was on post — how and where his orders were received; and so, following the bent of my mind, I told him — this time in detail — knowing that in London life reflects every shade of crime; knowing, too, that no one understands its intricacies better than the police — the whole story of Fagin and Bill Sykes — the traffic having slackened somewhat and sustained conversation being the easier.
That the story was impressing him very strongly I soon saw from his manner, and when I had finished he turned to me, paused for an instant as if thinking out the details, and in a thoughtful tone said :
"I had something happen to me might interest you, and if you'll stay here a minute until I straighten out that cove who's trying to crowd his cart in between that wagon and the footway I'll tell you about it. Oh — it's all right; he's moved on. I had a woman case once which came pretty near being rather savage on me. There wasn't any murder to it like your friend Nancy, but it might have been. I was over round the church — in the Borough — you can see the tower if you twist your head. There's a kind of small park over there, close to the town hall, Southwark, where the women take their children in the afternoon and on hot nights. One night I came up. against a woman sitting on a bench; she had a baby in her arms, and, as it was after hours, I told her she'd better take it home — quite polite-like — when she began to curse, and I saw right away she was staggering drunk. I got fast hold of her then and put her up on her feet, and she started to strike back, and it was all I could do to get her in — with the baby in one arm — I had to carry the kiddie — she doing all she could to break away from my other hand.
"His Worship listened to her story and she showed her arm, which was some red, but I couldn't help it for fear I'd drop the baby. His Worship said, ` I shall have to hold you, officer, for cruelty' — that, you see, would have been dismissal for me, abusing a woman with a child in her arms — and then he says to the woman : `You can go.'
"`May I speak, Your Worship?' I says. `What I want is a remand. If I ain't mistaken this woman is an old offender.'
"`Granted,' says his Worship. And I got to work and found out she had been up four times in two months, and his Worship made it a fine of three pound ten.
"Her husband was an upholsterer, a very fair kind of a chap, doing a pretty good business. He'd saved up four pounds to take his wife and child to Brighton — she was all right when she wasn't drunk — and so he ups and was about to pay the fine and take her home, when I put in a word with his Worship and he knocked it down to one pound ten.
"Well, he was always very civil to me after that when I'd meet him coming and going; then I got to dropping in when off duty at his house, and you never saw a nicer or soberer woman than she *as for about six months.
"One night I was just leaving his house and I went into the kitchen to wash my hands and was just asking her where I'd get a towel — she had her back to me — when she gave a little start and down went a black bottle and the whisky all over the floor. Her husband came running in, hearing the noise, and he saw right away what it was, and if he hadn't he could have smelt it, and upstairs he went like he was crazy, grabbed a pistol from the bureau drawer, and made straight for her with his finger on the trigger. I got there just in time, and the ball went into the ceiling and she on the floor in a stiff faint. Then I had all I could do to get it out of his hand or he would have shot himself. Now, when I meet him he doesn't look me in the eye. He holds his head down and gets fast of my hand and gives it a slow grip."
"And what became of him?" I asked.
"Oh, the wife pulled out after that. They're both all right. The baby's a fine lad. About four years old now. He told one of my pals I'd saved his life, although he never said so to me."