The river was already rising for the first of these three tides when the leader of the pirates heard a clatter of hoofs on the mixture of mud and stones that constituted the main street here in Wapping, running along the curve of the river behind the wharves. A mighty carriage, it sounded like. The clatter stopped, and he heard the sound of a carriage door slamming. A few minutes later, some squelching footsteps as a man approached. The pirate kept his eyes prudently closed as the footsteps stopped, perhaps directly in front of him. Within two hours, the river would be up to the chins of the men on the gallows, before falling back again.
Carefully, the pirate opened one eye halfway. He saw the swaying feet of his dead shipmates on either side of him, and opened the eye a little further. His visitor was standing on the foreshore, dressed in the Dutch style, all somber black and white, the clothes effortlessly wealthier than the new gay and gaudy fashions that were rippling out from the English Queen's court.
The visitor cleared his throat and spat. The pirate heard a small splash in the water, and his careful eyes caught the sun as it glittered on a thick lump of green phlegm which appeared and spun around in the water as it commenced its journey down to Tilbury. The visitor glanced up and behind at the gallows, and the pirate closed his eyes quickly. He resolved to keep his eyes that way as the visitor started to speak, in rich aristocratic tones with just the hint of a clammy Dutch accent.
"Quite a view they've given you. Desirable waterfront property, I'd say."
The pirate said nothing, obviously. The creaking of the gallows was the only sound as he and his men swung gently in the soft summer breeze. Miles and miles upstream, it was a beautiful evening among the willow trees and reeds at Runnymede and Richmond, where the aristocrats played at court and love and wrote poetry to each other. The sun was setting in the opulent west. But here, to the east of the metropolis, the dominant colors were grays and browns. Mud and water, not trees and flowers.
The thought seemed to make the visitor positively cheerful. He put his hands behind his back and actually rose up on his toes at the vista before him. "Someday all this will be very desirable property, captain. When my father built his wall here, he had a vision of a new suburb, with the river kept out and the land turned into meadows and orchards. He wanted this to be the prettiest part of London. And all within sight of that dreadful Tower."
It occurred to the pirate to wonder why the Dutchman was speaking when, as far as the man knew, there was no one there alive to listen to him.
The visitor spoke again, and even with his eyes closed the pirate captain had the impression that the Dutchman had turned his back on the river and was facing him. Almost as if he were speaking to him. Perhaps he was practicing an address.
"You'll be the last, captain. The last crew to be hanged on this so-called Execution Dock. It's keeping the developers away, this grisly habit, and this land is valuable. A hundred years, maybe two hundred, this'll be the busiest port in the world. Trade is coming, captain. Trade. Not petty thievery or the ridiculous swapping of bits of unmade cloth for bits of food 'n' drink. The world's wealth is out there waiting to be bought and sold, and unlike most of my countrymen I predict that the buying and selling will happen here, in London, not in Antwerp or Rotterdam. Wapping's going to flourish. It's going to become the hub on which the world turns. You'll go down in history, captain. The last pirate to be hanged at Wapping. My congratulations."
Another movement, and then the sound of the visitor walking back to his carriage. The slamming door, the "hai!" of the coachman, and the snap of hoofs and wheels on the road back into London. And then only the sound of the creaking gallows again.
The tide rose, and later it fell. It rose and it fell three times. When the locals came to cut them down, they were disconcerted to find only five pirates hanging from the gallows. The sixth - the captain - had gone.
Excerpted from The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd. Copyright © 2012 by Lloyd Shepherd. Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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