100:  Of Citie Cats and Conies

There came the day when I resolved to pass beyond the citie wall, come what may.

A large three-storey brick building, built over an archway with a portcullis.
Ludgate, from a drawing c1650 via Wikimedia Commons. It probably looked much the same when Tricks saw it in 1598.

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 for skollers of the law?  The gate that Essex’ House lay near?

I was wearie of gates.  And small enough, most like, to slip beneath a shut one.

So 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.

“Eat, and 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?

An orange, black and white cat standing on a tiled roof against a background of trees.

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.  Never had I 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.”

The prison?

“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?  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 by all I’d seen and heared that night, I knew I loved this citie.

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorLike 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.

A pen and ink drawing of a female rabbit and a male rabbit in Elizabethan dress.Or, as we might say, a dumb bunny.

Small booklets, purportedly written to warn respectable folk 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.


99:  I Hatch a Venturous Plan

First, I watched how other cats went about the citie.

Across the rooves.  Down a tree that grew by a house.  Into a yard or lane, and up onto a wall.  Thence to another tree or convenient place.  

But at times I saw them slip along streets that were throng and people-pestered.  A thing I feared to do.

I turned to the river.  In truth, it seemed more like unto a haven [harbour] where great waters rise and fall.

There were more boats that I could number.  How joyed I was to glimpse a cat in one!

But Linkin told me that boat had brought meats [food] to the citie, and the cat was employed thereon to kill vermin.

“Many boats bring viands,” sayt he.  “Others carry people who go where’er they wish.”

He told me great folks oft had their own boats.  The middling sort (like the master and our mistress) paid a waterman to carry them.

No boat for me, then.

And so I went forth upon the rooves.  The belling of the churches had ceased to trouble me, and I learnt to know one’s din from another’s.

At night I saw wicked eyes watching me, and heared lewd whispers as I passed.  But none offered to fight me.

A cat's eyes glinting from a moonlit roof.

I made my way westward, venturing across narrow lanes and pleasant gardens until I came to the citie’s great wall.

And beyond that?  A smaller river I’d seen from our roof.  And then the house of the Earl of Essex?  I hoped little dog Wattie could tell me.

Dogs are more apt for action than they are for knowledge.  Which is well for them, for if they could but know themselves, they would die of shame.

How I wearied myself, chasing about the house with Wattie.  And how oft I cleansed his head and ears while we rested.  But he told me what lay beyond the wall.

He’d been thither from Paws church [St Paul’s], where our mistress went to nose the books and greet her friends.  That were most tedious (he sayt) but the way westward from Paws ran through the wall, and over a river of wondrous stinks.

“Stinks,” sayt I, “will poyson you.  Tell me of fairer places.”

A small brown and white spaniel, with a carved wooden chair back as background,Wattie babbled of fields and rabbits.

“Know you the house of the most noble and heroick Earl of Essex, whom all love?” I arrkst.

He bragged of how many times he’d been by it.

First on the road, when we came to the citie and he heard the mistress speak of it.  And also by water, when he accompanied the mistress and the master in a boat.  He sayt it lay beside a house for skollers of the law.

“I care nowt for water,” sayt I.  “When next you go by road, fail not to leave good marks by both those houses.  Or ’twill be the worse for you.”

And stretching myself most affable, I showed him all my claws.

He swore he would.

Then I told Linkin I was of a mind to pass through the wall by night, and see where skollers of the law lodged.

“Which lodging do you mean?” he arrkst. “There are many.”

I arrkst him, a Law Cat, to accompany me.

He sayt he would not.  “And you cannot go by night.  I believe the gates are shut when men and women are abed.  You must whip through before the sun has quit the sky.  How shall you do that?”

I hid my head in my paws and cursed the morn I’d been discovered atop the herbs.   For had I remained in that loose-lid basket, I could have sprung forth before we entered the citie.  And sought a place in Essex’ house.

Now it seemed I must dwell among dogs, puritans, and children who made paper ruffs to pin about my neck.

Then Linkin sayt, “If you go, ’twere best you sit in some high place until the day fades.  Those that are in the citie will be hasting to go out, and those that are out will be hasting to come in.  Who will remark a cat creeping by?”

Linkin may be old, but he’s cunning.

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe route Tricks plans to take is less than a mile, but it’s a long and venturesome one for a cat.

Through the old Ludgate, which was a couple of blocks west of St Pauls.  Over the River Fleet (now underground).  Then along Fleet Street to the Strand.  The Earl of Essex’ riverside mansion was adjacent to Middle Temple (one of the Inns of Court) which has a beautiful Elizabethan hall.

A section of Braun & Hogenberg’s 1572 map of London.  St Paul’s is at the far right of the picture.  Essex House, marked with red, is at the far left.  The River Fleet is marked with blue where it runs into the Thames.  (J. Hoefnagel engraving – Wikimedia Commons)