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Authors: Peter Ackroyd

Tags: #prose_contemporary, #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

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BOOK: Hawksmoor
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The two Creatures were placed onto a bundle of Carcasses, all ragged and swollen like a Nest of Wormes, and the Bell-Man and two Linkes took the Cart down Black-Eagle-Street, past Corbets Court and through Brownes Lane: I follow'd close on their Heels, and could hear them making merry with their Lord Have Mercy On Us, No Man Will and their Wo To Thee My Honeys; they were Drunken to the highest degree, and were like to have Pitched the Corses into the Doorways so wayward was their track. But then they came out into the Spittle- Fields and, as I was running besides them now in my Wonder or Delirium (I know not what), of a sudden I saw a vast Pitte almost at my very Feet; I stopp'd short, star'd withinne it, and then as I totter'd upon the Brink had a sudden Desire to cast myself down. But at this moment the Cart came to the edge of the Pitte, it was turned round with much Merriment, and the Bodies were discharg'd into the Darknesse. I cou'd not Weep then but I can Build now, and in that place of Memory will I fashion a Labyrinth where the Dead can once more give Voice.

All that Night I wandred in the open Fields, sometimes giving vent to my Passions in loud singing and sometimes sunk into the most frightful Reflections: for in what a Box was I? I was at a great loss what to do, since I had been turned adrift to the wide World. I had not aim'd to return to my own House and indeed it proved impossible to do so: I soon discover'd that it had been pull'd down with several others by it, so noxious was the Air withinne; thus I was forc'd to go Abroad, and take up my old Rambling Humour once more. But I was now more cautious than of old: it was said (and I recall my Parents saying) that before the Pestilence there were seen publickly Daemons in Humane shape, which struck those they met, and those struck were presently seiz'd with the Disease; even those who saw such Apparitions (call'd Hollow Men) grew much alter'd. This was the Common report, at any rate: I believe now those Hollow Men to be a Recreation of all the Exhalations and Vapours of humane Blood that rose from the City like a general Groan. And it is not to be Wonder'd at that the Streets were mighty Desolate; there were in every place Bodies on the ground, from which came such a Scent that I ran to catch the Wind in my Nostrils, and even those who liv'd were so many walking Corses breathing Death and looking upon one another fearfully. And still alive? or And not dead yet? were their constant Enquiries of one another, tho' there were some who walked in such a Stupor that they cared not where they were going, and others who made Monkey noises into the Air. There were Children, also, whose Plaints could move even the Dying to Pity and their Verse echoes still in the Recesses and Corners of the Town: Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!

We are all tumbled down.

Thus was I taught by many Signes that Humane life was of no certain course: we are governed by One who like a Boy wags his Finger in the inmost part of the Spider's web and breaks it down without a Thought.

It would tire the Reader should I dwell on my various Adventures as a Street-Boy, wherefore at present I shall say no more of them. I return in the mean time to my Reflections arising from these Incidents, and to my Considerations on the weaknesse and folly of Humane life. After the Plague abated, the Mobb were happy againe with their Masquerades, Rush-burying, Morrice-dances, Whitson-ales, Fortune telling, Legerdemain, Lotteries, Midnight-revels and lewd Ballads; but I was of a different Mould. I had looked about me and penetrated what had occurred, not let it pass like a sick man's Dreame or a Scene without a Plot. I saw that the intire World was one vast Bill of Mortality, and that Daemons might walk through the Streets even as Men (on point of Death, many of them) debauch themselves: I saw the Flies on this Dunghil Earth, and then considered who their Lord might be.

But now the Work of Time unravells and the Night has gone and I am returned to the Office where Walter Pyne is standing at the Side of me, tapping his Shooe upon the Floor. How long have I sat here in my Trance of Memory?

I have been thinking on the Dead, said I in haste, and at that Walter turned his Face from me and seemingly searched after his Rule; he does not like to hear me talk of such Matters, and so when he sat himself down I switched my Theme: It is as dusty here as the top of a Slut's cupboard, I cried, look at my Finger!

It cannot be helped, says he, for when the Dust is cleared away it returns again directly.

I was disposed to be Merry with him now: Is Dust immortal then, I ask'd him, so that we may see it blowing through the Centuries? But as Walter gave no Answer I jested with him further to break his Melancholy humour: What is Dust, Master Pyne?

And he reflected a little: It is particles of Matter, no doubt.

Then we are all Dust indeed, are we not?

And in a feigned Voice he murmured, For Dust thou art and shalt to Dust return. Then he made a Sour face, but only to laugh the more.

I went up to him and placed my Hands upon his Shoulders, which made him tremble a little. Hold still, I said, I have good News.

What News is this?

I now agree with you, 7 replied. I will place the Sepulture a little way off from the Spittle-Fields Church. And for your sake, Walter, not on the advice of Sir Chris, but for your Sake only. And I have a Secret to impart to you (at this he inclin'd his head): we will build it for the most part under the Ground.

I have Dream'd of this, said he. He spoke no more and kept his Back to me as he went about his Labours, tho' pritty soon I heard his low Whistle as he bent over his Sheets.

We must make Haste, I call'a taking Pen and Inke, for the Church must be compleat withinne the Year.

And the yeares turn so fast, adds Walter, and now he is vanish'd and I am gone back to the time of the Distemper when I went abroad among so many walking Carcasses sweating Poison. At first I seemed to be toss'd up and down by spightful Accidents of Fortune, and made the May-game of Chance, until one night I found the Thread in my Labyrinth of Difficulties. It was the last week of July, about Nine in the Night, and I was walking by the Hatters-shop near the Three Tun Tavern in Redcross-street. It was a Moonshiny night but the Moon, being got behind the Houses, shined only a slant and sent a little stream of light out of one of the small Lanes quite cross the Street. I paus'd to give a Glance to this Light when out of the Lane walked a tall and pritty lean Man dressed in a Velvet jacket, a Band and a black Cloack; with him stepped out two Women with white Linnen Handkerchiefs wrapped around the lower part of their Faces (so to protect their Nostrils from the Scents of the Plague). The Man had a swift pace, and his Companions troubled themselves to keep up to him, and then to my unutterable Astonishment he pointed at me (in my tattered Coat and ragged Shooes): There is the Hand as plain as can be, says he, do you see it plainly above his Head? He was elevated to a strange Degree and call'd over to me, Boy! Boy! Come here to me!

Come here to me! And then one of the women with him said, Do not go near him, for how do you know but he may have the Plague? To which he answered: Do not be afraid of him. And at that I came close to them.

What art thou? says he.

 

I am a poor Boy,

 

Why, have you no Sir-name?

And then strangely I bethought my self of my Schoolboy reading: Faustus, says I.

I dare say, he replies, that the Devil cannot catch you; and at that the two Women laugh'd heartily. Then he gave me a Coin: there is Sixpence for you, he says, if you will come with us. For consider these times, little Faustus, it is a great deal of Money and we mean you no Hurt.

I hugged it as close as a School-boy does a Birds-nest, but I was not easily to be perswaded: might these not be reeking Apparitions, the Spirits of the Pestilence, or might they not be Carriers of the Contagion?

But then the words of the Woman came back into my Head -Do not go near him -and I surmised that these were Humane and incorrupted Creatures. I will go with you, says I, for the space of a little way if you will give me good Reason. And I perceived there was an Alteration in the Man's Countenance as he said, I will save you from Ruin, little Faustus, if you come with me and that will be a Surety.

And so I began to walk with them, and we were got quite up into Fenchurch-street when the Wind blew mightily so that the Tiles of the very Roofs fell down upon the Ground. The Ways were now so dark that I was as bewilder'd as a Pilgrim in the Desart, but at last we came by a narrow Lane (which is to say, Black Step Lane): here I was led thro' a long obscure Entry where I groped my way like a Subterranean Labourer in the Caverns of a Cole-pit; there was no Link nor Watchman's lanthorn but my Companions moved on at a swift Pace until the Man came to a little wooden door where he knocked thrice and whisper'd Mirabilis (which was, as I learn'd, his proper Name). On entering this Dwelling I looked about me and saw that it was a mean paper Building, the walls old and ruinous, the Rooms miserable and straite with but dim burning Candles in them. Here were Men and Women, not less than Thirty in Number; and not the meanest sort of people neither but, as we say, in the middling degree of Life. They look'd on me strangely at first but Mirabilis led me by the Hand saying, He had the Sign over his Head, He is the Corn thrashed out of the Chaff, and such like Phrases. I was now in a state of great Perplexity but, seeing that this Assembly smiled mightily upon me and embraced me, I became somewhat easier in my Thoughts. Mirabilis set me down upon a little Stool, then brought me a wooden Dish with a grey liquor in it and bid me drink it off as a Cordial; I swallow'd it without examination and then fell into an extream Sweat so that my Heart beat high. Mirabilis then ask'd me who I desired to see. I said I wanted to see no one so much as my Mother before she Stank (my confus'd Words showing that the Liquor was working withinne me).

Then he took up a Looking-glass that was in the Room, and setting it down again bid me look in it -which I did, and there saw the exact Image of my Mother in that Habit which she used to wear, and working at her Needle. This was an Astonishment indeed and my Hair would have lifted off my Hat, if it had been on.

I put down the Glass and my very Thoughts seemed suspended: I had no Power to turn my Gaze but to the Face of Mirabilis who was now speaking to the Assembly and discoursing of Flames, Ruines, Desolations, the rain like a hotte Winde, the Sun as red as Blood, the very dead burnt in their Graves (thus did he Prophesie the Burning of the City). This Company was not like the Meeters with their Yea, I do say and their Let me entreat and their Hear ye this but, as it seemed to me in my befuddled State, they laugh'd and jested with one another. Then they anointed their Foreheads and Hand-wrists with I know not what and seem'd about to Depart. I rose up to go but Mirabilis laid his Hand upon my Arm: Do you sit still, says he, and I'll come to you again. At which I was a little frightened to be left alone, and he perceived it: Don't be afraid, little Faustus, he continues, there shall Nothing hurt you nor speak to you and, if you hear any Noise, don't you stir but sit still here. So he took up one of the Candles and they went into another Room by a little Door like a Closet-Door, and when he shut the Door after him I perceiv'd a little Window of one broad Square of Glass only that looked into the Room which they were gone into. I wanted to peep but I durst not stir for my Life and then, fatigued and exhausted by the surprizing Turns of this Night, I fell into a sound Sleep; before I did so, I seemed to hear screeching, much like that of a Catte.

And thus began my strange Destiny. I rested with Mirabilis seven dayes, and if any Reader should inquire why I did so I will answer: Firstly, I was a meer poor Boy and had seen my Mother in his Glass; Secondly, the teachings of Mirabilis are trew ones, as I shall explain further hereafter; Thirdly, the most wonderful thing in the Plague Year was that his intire Assembly had been preserv'd from Contagion by his Practises and his Prophesyings; Fourth, I was curious about all these Matters and Hunger and Thirst are not Appetites more vehement or more hard. Now what I know I would be glad to unknow again, but my Memory will not let me be untaught.

I shall Particularize now -like a Drunken Man, there were Occasions when Mirabilis reeled and danced about several times in a Circle, fell at last in an Extasy upon the Ground and lay for a short time as one Dead; meanwhile the Assembly took great Care that no Gnat, Fly or other Animal touch him; then he started up on a Sudden and related to them things concerning their trew Situation. Sometimes he fell upon the Ground and was whispering there unintelligibly to some thing that was neither seen nor heard. And then he would turn and say, Give me some Drink, quickly any thing to drink. On several Occasions he turned with his Face towards the wall intensely and greedily poring thereon, and beckning thereunto, as if he converst with some thing: he so sweated thro' his Cloaths that it stood like a Dew upon them, and then when he arose from his Extasie he desir'd a Pipe of Tobacco. And in the hour before Dusk he whisper'd to me that those whom he chose (as I had been chosen) must be washed and consecrated by the Sacrifice, and that in our Eucharist the Bread must be mingled with the Blood of an Infant. But these things are not to be committed to Paper, but to be delivered by Word of Mouth, which I may do when at last I see you, I shall say only at this point that I, the Builder of Churches, am no Puritan nor Caveller, nor Reformed, nor Catholick, nor Jew, but of that older Faith which sets them dancing in Black Step Lane. And this is the Creed which Mirabilis school'd in me: He who made the World is also author of Death, nor can we but by doing Evil avoid the rage of evil Spirits. Out of the imperfections of this Creator are procreated divers Evils: as Darknesse from his Feare, shaddowes from his Ignorance, and out of his Teares come forth the Waters of this World. Adam after his Fall was never restor'd to Mercy, and all men are Damned. Sin is a Substance and not a Quality, and it is communicated from parents to children: men's Souls are corporeal and have their being by Propagation or Traduction, and Life itself is an inveterate Mortal Contagion.

We baptize in the name of the Father unknown, for he is truly an unknown God; Christ was the Serpent who deceiv'd Eve, and in the form of a Serpent entered the Virgin's womb; he feigned to die and rise again, but it was the Devil who truly was crucified. We further teach that the Virgin Mary, after Christ's birth, did marry once and that Cain was the Author of much goodnesse to Mankind. With the Stoicks we believe that we sin necessarily or co-actively, and with Astrologers that all Humane events depend upon the Starres. And thus we pray: What is Sorrow? The Nourishment of the World. What is Man? An unchangeable Evil. What is the Body? The Web of Ignorance, the foundation of all Mischief, the bond of Corrupcion, the dark Coverture, the living Death, the Sepulture carried about with us. What is Time? The Deliverance of Man. These are the ancient Teachings and I will not Trouble my self with a multiplicity of Commentators upon this place, since it is now in my Churches that I will bring them once more into the Memory of this and future Ages. For when I became acquainted with Mirabilis and his Assembly I was uncovering the trew Musick of Time which, like the rowling of a Drum, can be heard from far off by those whose Ears are prickt.

BOOK: Hawksmoor
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