chapter < | THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON
next chapter >
THE OLD HOUSE IN SMITHFIELD.
OUR narrative opens at the commencement of July, 1831.
The night was dark and stormy. The sun had set behind huge
piles of dingy purple clouds, which, after losing the golden hue with which [-3-]
they were for awhile tinged, became sombre and menacing. The blue portions of
the sky that here and there had appeared before the sunset, were now rapidly
covered over with those murky clouds which are the hiding-places of the storm,
and which seemed to roll themselves together in dense and compact masses, ere
they commenced the elemental war.
In the same manner do the earthly squadrons of cavalry and
mighty columns of infantry form themselves into one collected armament, that the
power of their onslaught may be the more terrific and irresistible.
That canopy of dark and threatening clouds was formed over
London; and a stifling heat, which there was not a breath of wind to allay or
mitigate, pervaded the streets of the great metropolis.
Everything portended an awful storm.
In the palace of the peer and the hovel of the artisan the
windows were thrown up; and at many, both men and women stood to contemplate the
scene - timid children crowding behind them.
The heat became more and more oppressive.
At, length large drops of rain fell, at intervals of two or
three inches apart, upon the pavement.
And then a flash of lightning, like the forked tongue of one
of those fiery serpents of which we read in oriental tales of magic and
enchantment, darted forth from the black clouds overhead.
At an interval of a few seconds the roar of the thunder,
reverberating through the arches of heaven - now sinking, now exalting its
fearful tone, like the iron wheels of a chariot rolled over a road with patches
of uneven pavement here and there - stunned every ear, and struck terror into
many a heart - the innocent as well as the guilty.
It died away, like the chariot, in the distance; and then all
was solemnly still.
The interval of silence which succeeds the protracted
thunder-clap is appalling in the extreme.
A little while - and again the lightning illuminated the
entire vault above: and again the thunder, in unequal tames, - amongst which was
one resembling the rattling of many vast iron bars together, - awoke every echo
of the metropolis from north to south, and from east to west.
This time the dread interval of silence was suddenly
interrupted by the torrents of rain that now deluged the streets.
There was not a breath of air; and the rain fell as
perpendicularly straight as a line. But with it came a sense of freshness and of
a pure atmosphere, which formed an agreeable and cheering contrast to the
previously suffocating heat. It was like the spring of the oasis to the wanderer
in the burning desert.
But still the lightning played, and the thunder rolled,
At the first explosion of the storm, amidst the thousands of
men and women and children, who were seen hastening hither and thither, in all
directions, as if they were flying from the plague, was one person on whose
exterior none could gaze without being inspired with a mingled sentiment of
admiration and interest.
He was a youth, apparently not more than sixteen years of
age, although taller than boys usually are at that period of life. But the tenderness
of his years was divined by the extreme effeminacy and juvenile loveliness of
his countenance, which was as fair and delicate as that of a young girl. His
long luxuriant hair, of a beautiful light chestnut colour, and here and there
borrowing dark shades from the frequent undulations in which it rolled, flowed
not only over the collar of his closely-buttoned blue frock coat, but also upon
his shoulders. Its extreme profusion, and the singular manner in which he wore
it, were, however, partially concealed by the breadth of the brim of his hat,
that was placed as it were entirely upon the back of his head, and, being thus
thrown off his countenance, revealed the high, intelligent, and polished
forehead above which that rich hair was carefully parted.
His frock-coat, which was single-breasted, and buttoned up to
the throat, set off his symmetrical and elegant figure to the greatest
advantage. His shoulders were broad, but were characterised by that fine fall or
slope which is so much admired in the opposite sex. He wore spurs upon the heels
of his diminutive polished boots; and in his hand he carried a light
riding-whip. But he was upon foot and alone; and, when the first flash of
lightning dazzled his expressive hazel eyes, he was hastily traversing the foul
and filthy arena of Smithfield -market.
An imagination poetically inspired would suppose a similitude
of a beautiful flower upon a fetid manure heap.
He cast a glance, which may almost be termed one of affright,
around ; and his cheek became flushed. He had evidently lost his way, and was
uncertain where to obtain an asylum against the coming storm.
The thunder burst above his head; and a momentary shudder
passed over his frame. He accosted a man to inquire his way; but the answer he
received was rude, and associated with a ribald joke.
He had not courage to demand a second time the information he
sought; but, with a species of haughty disdain at the threatening storm, and a
proud reliance upon himself, proceeded onwards at random.
He even slackened his pace; a contemptuous smile curled his
lips, and the glittering white teeth appeared as it were between two rose-leaves.
His chest, which was very prominent, rose up and down almost
convulsively; for it was evident that he endeavoured to master conflicting
feelings of vexation, alarm, and disgust - all produced by the position in which
he found himself.
To one so young, so delicate, and so frank in appearance, the
mere fact of losing his way by night in a disgusting neighbourhood, during an
impending storm, and insulted by a low-life ruffian, was not the mere trifle
which it would have been considered by the hardy and experienced man of the
Not a public conveyance was to be seen; and the doors of all
the houses around appeared inhospitably closed: and every moment it seemed to
Accident conducted the interesting young stranger into that
labyrinth of narrow and dirty streets which lies in the immediate vicinity of
the north-western angle of Smithfield-market.
It was in this horrible neighbourhood that the youth was now
wandering. He was evidently shocked at the idea that human beings could dwell in
such fetid and unwholesome dens; for he gazed with wonder, disgust, and alarm
upon the houses on either side. It seemed as if he [-4-] had
never beheld till now a labyrinth of dwellings whose very aspect appeared to
speak of hideous poverty and fearful crime.
Meantime the lightning flashed, and the thunder rolled; and
at length the rain poured down in torrents. Obeying a mechanical impulse, the
youth rushed up the steps of a house at the end of one of those dark, narrow,
and dirty streets the ominous appearance of which was every now and then
revealed to him by a light streaming from a narrow window, or the glare of the
lightning. The framework of the door projected somewhat, and appeared to offer a
partial protection from the rain. The youth drew as closely up to it as
possible; but to his surprise it yielded behind him, and burst open. With
difficulty he saved himself from falling backwards into the passage with which
the door communicated.
Having recovered from the sudden alarm with which this
incident had inspired him, his next sentiment was one of pleasure to think that
he had thus found a more secure asylum against the tempest. He, however, felt
wearied - desperately wearied; and his was not a frame calculated to bear up
against the oppressive and crushing feeling of fatigue. He determined to
penetrate, amidst the profound darkness by which he was surrounded, into the
dwelling; thinking that if there were any inmates they would not refuse him the
accommodation of a chair; and if there were none, he might find a seat upon the
He advanced along the passage, and groped about. His hand
encountered the lock of a door: he opened it, and entered a room. All was dark
as pitch. At that moment a flash of lightning, more than usually vivid and
prolonged, illuminated the entire scene. The glance which he cast around was as
rapid as the glare which made objects visible to him for a few moments. He was
in a room entirely empty; but in the middle of the floor - only three feet from
the spot where he stood - there was a large square of jet blackness.
The lightning passed away: utter darkness again surrounded
him; and he was unable to ascertain what that black square, so well defined and
apparent upon the dirty floor, could be.
An indescribable sensation of fear crept over him; and the
perspiration broke out upon his forehead in large drops. His knees bent beneath
him ; and, retreating a few steps, he leaned against the door-posts for support.
He was alone - in an uninhabited house, in the midst of a
horrible neighbourhood; and all the fearful tales of midnight murders which he
had ever heard or read, rushed to his memory; then, by a strange but natural
freak of the fancy, those appalling deeds of blood and crime were suddenly
associated with that incomprehensible but ominous black square upon the floor.
He was in the midst of this terrible waking-dream - this more
than ideal nightmare - when hasty steps approached the front door from the
street; and, without stopping, entered the passage. The youth crept silently
towards the farther end, the perspiration oozing from every pore. He felt the
staircase with his hands; the footsteps advanced; and, light as the fawn, he
hurried up the stairs. So noiseless were his motions, that his presence was not
noticed by the new comers, who in their turns also ascended me staircase.
The youth reached a landing, and hastily felt for the doors
of the rooms with which it communicated. In another moment he was in a chamber,
at the back part of the house. He closed the door, and placed himself against it
with all his strength - forgetful, poor youth! that his fragile form was
unavailing, with all its power, against even the single arm of a man of only
Meantime the new-comers ascended the stairs.
chapter < | THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON
next chapter >