There came the day when I resolved to pass beyond the citie wall, come what may.
I sat above the street that led to the gate, watching people trudge below me. Then I heard a man commanding all to make way.
They did, but with sour looks.
Behind the man walked four harnessed horses. They drew one of those new-fangle carts that fine folks call a coach. Another man sat on the coach, holding their reins.
I sprang onto its roof, and lay flat as a flounder. I hearked women’s voices within – a lady and her gentlewoman, I guessed – but none heeded me.
Once through the gate and over the Bridge of Stinks [the Fleet bridge], I glimpsed a second great gate ahead. And was vexed, for none had told me of it.
Which was the gate by the inns where skollers of the law lodged? And Essex’ House lay near to?
I was wearie of gates. And small enough, most like, to slip beneath a shut one.
I sprang from the coach and hid myself in a churchyard, there to wait until the road was clear. I caught a coney [rabbit] for my supper.
After I’d ate, two starvelings slipped from the shadows and fell upon my leavings.
“Welcome, friends,” sayt I. “Pray tell me, is that great house yonder for skollers of the law?”
They gave me saucie looks.
“Sure,” sayt one, “they’re studious in there.”
The other sayt, “They leave that house more cunning than they was when they came in.”
I was about to offer thanks, when the first sayt, “Pray forgive us, friend. We took you for a cat.”
“But now we know you’re a coney of another kind,” sayt the second.
Each snapped a last morsel of my rabbit, and skipped away.
I followed them, but turned westward across the rooves. When I came among tall trees I arrkst myself, Is this where Essex dwells?
But, so nigh to the river and far from the road, I had no hope of finding any marks left by little dog Wattie.
Then I saw another cat watching me, peaceable enough. He turned his head aside when I eyed him.
I took his scents. I’d never nosed so many coming off one cat! Nutmeg, pepper, cloves; no end of costly spices. Then parsley, sage, and rue. Mixed with other herbs and roots I knew, but couldn’t name.
He was as perfumed as a pomander.
He’d took my scents, too. He arrkst me, sudden, where I’d caught the coney.
“By the citie gate,” sayt I, most courteous. “And I hope I robbed none by so doing. In truth, I offered the choicer parts to two lean sisters who came by. But I fear hunger stole their wits, for they spake in riddles. And called me coney, too.”
“Picker and Stealer, they call theirselves,” sayt he. “They haunt the prison, and learn wicked talk there.”
“Then where,” I arrkst, “is the Earl of Essex’ house?”
He stepped from our tree onto the wall at the river’s edge. “There,” he sayt. “See the torch that lights his stairs? But I believe all places in his house are taken. Who would not serve Essex?”
“I seek no place,” sayt I (untruthful). “I’m in the service of my lord of Southampton.”
“What?” cried he, starting up. “Is his lordship come so soon? When shall they be wed?”
“Can no London cat speak plain?” I arrkst. “When shall who be wed?”
“Why, your Earl and his fair mistress that’s cousin to noble Essex. She has a kit in her belly.”
He seemed about to say more, but there came a fearful howl.
I looked down to see a great cat whose scars and scabs bore witness to many a bloodie fray, then up to see my new friend flee.
I followed him. We ran along the wall beside the dark river.
“That villain can’t catch us now,” sayt my friend, pausing to rest. “He’s too old and slow.”
I sat beside him.
He sayt, “Yonder lies the prison, where nimble cats can cross into the citie. Picker and Stealer showed me the way.”
Below me the dark water licked at another set of stairs. Above, the Queen Cat of Heaven’s myriad eyes dimmed themselves against the coming day.
And, mazed as I was, I knew that I loved this citie.
Like many an impatient traveller, Tricks alights from the coach too soon. She should have stayed until it passed through Temple Bar, where Fleet Street became The Strand. Then she could have disembarked in front of Essex House.
Instead she mistook the prison of Bridewell for an Inn of Court, to the delight of Picker and Stealer. “Coney” was an Elizabethan term for any gullible soul who could be easily “caught”, i.e. conned.
Small booklets, purportedly written to warn the respectable about the wiles of coney-catchers, were popular and entertaining reading.
There was no Embankment in those days. The mansions by the river had their own “stairs” – steps down to private jetties.
Tricks’ fragrant friend seems to have known a way onto Bridewell’s wall and then its roof. Bridewell had been one of Henry VIII’s palaces, and later an ambassador’s residence. In the 1550s it was given to the city to serve as an orphanage, house of correction for disorderly women, and later a workhouse for vagrants.
During Bridewell’s better days, a covered corridor had been built over the River Fleet to give access to additional lodgings in Blackfriars. If this corridor was still in existence in 1598, the cats may have used its roof as a bridge.