Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A legend of Swaffham

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Some ninety or a hundred miles N.N.E. of London, there is a thriving and populous market-town. Built on the summit of a lofty eminence, and surrounded by a well wooded country for the space of a couple of miles, which is further environed by an open tract of heath several thousand acres in extent, Swaffham has for many centuries maintained its position as one of the most healthy and well-to-do market-towns in England. My story dates three hundred and fifty years back, and at that time there lived in one of the outskirts of the town a poor pedlar, by name John Chapman. Very little was known respecting him; he had carried his pack into Swaffham one day, and liking the place and its inhabitants, and its inhabitants liking him, had forgotten to carry it out again. At least he carried it no farther than the outskirts in question, where he took possession of a small tenement, and dropping in some measure the roving life of a pedlar, contrived to obtain a decent livelihood by following the avocation of a tinker, some knowledge of which trade he had, in his peregrinations, managed to pick up. In this manner, John Chapman had lived amongst the town folk for the space of twenty years, only leaving them once or twice for a few weeks in each year, when he undertook pedestrian excursions to dispose of the productions of his handiwork, for since his entrance into Swaffam he had to trust his own skill and ingenuity to furnish contents for the pedlar’s pack. He was still a young man when he took up his residence in the town, but, in his capacity of pedlar, had done what was then considered a great deal of travelling, and being a close observer, and possessing a good way of retailing his experiences, he soon became the village oracle, a position which his half-yearly excursions enabled him to maintain with ease.

Some three years after his first appearance at her father’s house, John had wooed and won the affections of “sweete Mary,” the pretty daughter of the worthy Boniface who kept the hostelry yclept “Ye Redde Lyone,” the inn patronised by John and his friends. The day was fixed for the wedding, and all prepared, when a malignant fever brought the girl to her bed, from which she was in a few weeks taken to be laid in a quiet grave in the neighbouring churchyard. There was nothing loud or showy about the grief of the bereaved lover; he followed his sweetheart to the grave, and then, the same evening, set out for a much longer tour than usual. When he returned, his mind had, to all appearance, recovered its usual healthy tone, and he had the same quiet, easy flow of spirits, but the blow had struck deep and sure, and the softest feelings the pedlar’s heart ever knew were buried under the yew tree in the village graveyard.

Now I wish it to be distinctly understood that my hero was not at all superstitious. Of course he placed some little faith in a legend he heard from some one who took charge of him as a child, showing how a ghost had appeared to his grandfather, though for what purpose, and in what way the circumstance affected the fortunes of his family, it was difficult to say; and he was inclined to place a slight degree of credence in the story which the sexton used to tell over his tankard, how, once in a century or so, anyone visiting the village church at night would see strange lights moving about the interior of the building, hear strange voices proceeding from among the tombs, the pattering of invisible feet up the aisles of the church, and, lastly, most unearthly music coming from the organ.

Still, with one or two such well authenticated exceptions as these, John plumed himself on not believing in ghost stories; and boasted that no matter where it was his fortune to rest for the night, he could resign himself to the particular satellite of the drowsy god that watched over his nocturnal destinies without fear of being disturbed by any spectral visitants. There was, nevertheless, matter for deep and grave reflection when he awoke one morning after having dreamt that if within a week from that date he made a journey to London, he would hear of something that, in modern parlance, would be termed “greatly to his advantage.”

The result of his cogitations was a resolution to say nothing concerning the affair to his friends at the hostelry, but to wait patiently and see what the next night’s rest would bring forth, and in case the dream should be repeated to start at once for London. That night’s rest brought with it a recurrence of the vision, and before noon on the following day John had started on his journey, having furnished himself with a stock of articles which he intended should defray his expenses. In those days people had no opportunity of complaining of the speed, or rather want of speed, of Eastern Counties’ Railway trains; coaches, or public conveyances of any kind, were things unknown, and so the best, and almost only, way for a man strong in body, but weak in purse, to make the journey, was that adopted by our pedlar—on foot. Travelling thus, in the true pedlar style, and without anything extraordinary happening to him on the road, he in due time arrived at London, and leaving his pack with mine host of the Bull, in Aldgate, lost little time in proceeding to the Bridge, to which place he had, in his dream, been directed to proceed.

I am not about to bore my readers with a description of Old London Bridge, which has already been done so much better than I could do it. Suffice it to say that John had spent some hours in traversing its narrow footway without meeting with anything which would lead him to suppose that his dream was in course of fulfilment, and had commenced the attempt—which all of us have made at some time or other—to convince himself that what he was doing was not likely to prove of the slightest service to him, and that by far the wisest course of procedure he could adopt would be to make the best of his way back from whence he came, when he was accosted by an individual whose appearance presented somewhat of the soldier of fortune, sobered down by the habits of a merchant, and finished off with a slight dash of the gentleman.

“Thou seemest ill at ease, friend,” said the newcomer; “hast thou lost thy way? If so, I may, perchance, be of service to thee.”

“And if I had,” replied the pedlar, “I have years enough to know that the most unlikely way of finding it is to pace to and fro this bridge at night. But sooth to say (and thou may’st laugh at me an’ thou wilt), I have come to London on the vain errand of a dream, and am somewhat ashamed of myself for having done so.”

“Alas, good friend!” replied the other; “an’ I had given way to such foolish fancies as that, I might have proved myself as very a fool as thou hast; for ’tis not long since I dreamt that at a place called Swaffham, in Norfolk, dwells one John Chapman, a pedlar; and, moreover, I was told in my dream that if I went thither, I should find at the back of the said John Chapman his house, a tree, under which is buried a pot of money.”

If my hero possessed sufficient coolness not to let astonishment deprive him of the power of replying, he also possessed sufficient prudence to supply its place; so simply wishing his new acquaintance “Good night,” he returned to the place where he had left his pack, and early the next morning hastened homewards.

It was a bright moonlight night. The neighbours had all retired to their respective homes, and the lights were extinguished throughout the place, when the pedlar, armed with spade and pickaxe, walked quietly out at his back door, and commenced digging at the foot of a large tree that grew close by. He had worked on for some time perseveringly; and, as in the case of his walk upon the Bridge, was on the point of dubbing himself a fool for his pains, when his spade struck against something hard, and stooping to discover what caused the obstruction, he found a large brass pot filled with money, and inscribed:—

“Under me doth lie, another much richer than I.”

The sentence was in Latin, but by the aid of what little learning he had, John contrived to make out something of its meaning, and to set to work with renewed vigour. His toil was rewarded by the finding of another vessel much larger than the first, and filled with old coin. Soon the hole was filled up, and the ground made to look as much as possible like what it did before he had made the excavation, and John conveyed his prizes into the house, examined them, found them of great value, concealed them, and then retired to rest, to think over his treasure and the purpose to which he should devote it.

alt = In a medieval setting, two men (one of them leaning on a staff) converse at night on a bridge in a city.

I should, perhaps, ere this, have mentioned, that for some years past Swaffham church had been very much out of repair, and those entrusted with its affairs had been straining every nerve to raise money for the purpose of re-decorating and partially rebuilding it, but as yet not more than half the requisite sum had been obtained. Now it occurred to our hero that he could not do better than devote some portion of his new gotten wealth to the cause; and he, therefore, took the first opportunity that presented itself of calling upon his pastor, and to the latter’s no small astonishment offered to rebuild the north aisle and tower, informing him how he had “dreamed a dream, wherein was disclosed unto him a way in which he might become the possessor of an exceeding great treasure. That his dream had been fulfilled beyond his greatest expectations; and now, being no longer poor, he wished to show his gratitude by doing all he could for the service of the Church.”

John Chapman lived to be a man of some standing in the parish of Swaffham, though tradition saith that he altered but little his simple manner of living, and did not give up his bi-annual excursions until years after the necessity for carrying his pack with him had gone by. It is also supposed that he strengthened the ties that held him to the place by taking unto him a wife; and I am led to place some faith in this, from the fact that there once existed in the north aisle a seat, on which was carved the effigy of a pedlar with his pack and dog, and his wife looking over the door of a shop; the latter feature in the picture being accounted for on the ground that John’s wife had a very natural desire to have her memory as much as possible associated with that of a husband whom she must have admired so greatly. Many years ago, when the nave and aisles were repaved, this and many other carved seats were removed, and now form a piece of patchwork, designated the Tinker’s Seat, in the chapel of the north transept, by a visit to which, the curious may convince themselves of the veracity of my story.

George Heathcote.