E-text prepared by Al Haines
H. M. TOMLINSON
Garden City, New York Garden City Publishing Co., Inc Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
TO MY MOTHER
AND TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER
I THE FORESHORE II A MIDNIGHT VOYAGE III A SHIPPING PARISH IV THE "HEART'S DESIRE" V THE MASTER VI THE SHIP-RUNNERS VII NOT IN THE ALMANAC VIII THE ILLUSION IX IN A COFFEE-SHOP X OFF-SHORE XI AN OLD LLOYD'S REGISTER
I. The Foreshore
It begins on the north side of the City, at Poverty Corner. It begins imperceptibly, and very likely is no more than what a native knows is there. It does not look like a foreshore. It looks like another of the byways of the capital. There is nothing to distinguish it from the rest of Fenchurch Street. You will not find it in the Directory, for its name is only a familiar bearing used by seamen among themselves. If a wayfarer came upon it from the west, he might stop to light a pipe (as well there as anywhere) and pass on, guessing nothing of what it is and of its memories. And why should he? London is built of such old shadows; and while we are here casting our own there is not much time to turn and question what they fall upon. Yet if some unreasonable doubt, a suspicion that he was being watched, made a stranger hesitate at that corner, he might begin to feel that London there was as different from Bayswater and Clapham as though deep water intervened. In a sense deep water does; and not only the sea, but legends of ships that have gone, and of the men who knew them, and traditions of a service older than anything Whitehall knows, though still as lively as enterprise itself, and as recent as the ships which moved on today's high water.
In a frame outside one of its shops hangs a photograph of a sailing ship. The portrait is so large and the beauty of the subject so evident that it might have been the cause of the stranger stopping there to fill his pipe. Yet how could he know that to those groups of men loitering about the name of that ship is as familiar as Suez or Rio, even though they have never seen her? They know her as well as they know their business. They know her house-flag—it is indistinguishable in the picture—and her master, and it is possible the oldest of them remembers the clippers of that fleet of which she alone now carries the emblem; for this is not only another year, but another era. But they do not look at her portrait. They spit into the road, or stare across it, and rarely move from where they stand, except to pace up and down as though keeping a watch. At one time, perhaps thirty years ago, it was usual to see gold rings in their ears. It is said that if you wanted a bunch of men to run a little river steamer, with a freeboard of six inches, out to Delagoa Bay, you could engage them all at this corner, or at the taverns just up the turning. The suggestion of such a voyage, in such a ship, would turn us to look on these men in wonder, for it is the way of all but the wise to expect appearance to betray admirable qualities. These fellows, though, are not significant, except that you might think of some of them that their ease and indifference were assumed, and that, when trying not to look so, they were very conscious of the haste and importance of this great city into which that corner jutted far enough for them. They have just landed, or they are about to sail again, and they might be standing on the shore eyeing the town beyond, in which the luck of ships is cast by strangers they never see, but who are inimical to them, and whose ways are inscrutable.
If there are any inland shops which can hold one longer than the place where that ship's portrait hangs, then I do not know them. That comes from no more, of course, than the usual fault of an early impression. That fault gives a mould to the mind, and our latest thoughts, which we try to make reasonable, betray that accidental shape. It may be said that I looked into this window while still soft. The consequence, everybody knows, would be incurable in a boy who saw sextants for the first time, compasses, patent logs, sounding-machines, signalling gear, and the other secrets of navigators. And not only those things. There was a section given to books, with classics like Stevens on Stowage, and Norie's Navigation, volumes never seen west of Gracechurch Street. The books were all for the eyes of sailors, and were sorted by chance. Knots and Splices, Typee, Know Your Own Ship, the South Pacific Directory, and Castaway on the Auckland Islands. There were many of them, and they were in that fortuitous and attractive order. The back of every volume had to be read, though the light was bad. On one wall between the windows a specimen chart was framed. Maps are good; but how much better are charts, especially when you cannot read them except by guessing at their cryptic lettering! About the coast line the fathom marks cluster thickly, and venture to sea in lines which attenuate, or become sparse clusters, till the chart is blank, being beyond soundings. At the capes are red dots, with arcs on the seaward side to show at what distance mariners pick up the real lights at night. Through such windows, boys with bills of lading and mates' receipts in their pockets, being on errands to shipowners, look outward, and only seem to look inward. Where are the confines of London?
Opposite Poverty Corner there is, or used to be, an archway into a courtyard where in one old office the walls were hung with half-models of sailing ships. I remember the name of one, the Winefred. Deed-boxes stood on shelves, with the name of a ship on each. There was a mahogany counter, an encrusted pewter inkstand, desks made secret with high screens, and a silence that might have been the reproof to intruders of a repute remembered in dignity behind the screens by those who kept waiting so unimportant a visitor as a boy. On the counter was a stand displaying sailing cards, announcing, among other events in London River, "the fine ship Blackadder for immediate dispatch, having most of her cargo engaged, to Brisbane." And in those days, just round the corner in Billiter Street, one of the East India Company's warehouses survived, a sombre relic among the new limestone and red granite offices, a massive archway in its centre leading, it could be believed, to an enclosure of night left by the eighteenth century, and forgotten. I never saw anybody go into it, or come out. How could they? It was of another time and place. The familiar Tower, the Guildhall that we knew nearly as well, the Cathedral which certainly existed, for it could often be seen in the distance, and the Abbey that was little more than something we had heard named, they were but the scenery close to the buses. Yet London was more wonderful than anything they could make it appear. About Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street wagons could be seen going east, bearing bales and cases, and the packages were port-marked for Sourabaya, Para, Ilo-Ilo, and Santos—names like those. They had to be seen to be believed. You could stand there, forced to think that the sun never did more than make the floor of asphalted streets glow like polished brass, and that the evening light was full of glittering motes and smelt of dust, and that life worked itself out in cupboards made of glass and mahogany; and suddenly you learned, while smelling the dust, that Acapulco was more than a portent in a book and held only by an act of faith. Yet that astonishing revelation, enough to make any youthful messenger forget where he himself was bound, through turning to follow with his eyes that acceptance by a carrier's cart of the verity of the fable, is nowhere mentioned, I have found since, in any guide to London, though you may learn how Cornhill got its name.
For though Londoners understand the Guildhall pigeons have as much right to the place as the aldermen, they look upon the seabirds by London Bridge as vagrant strangers. They do not know where their city ends on the east side. Their River descends from Oxford in more than one sense. It has little history worth mentioning below Westminster. To the poets, the River becomes flat and songless where at Richmond the sea's remote influence just moves it; and there they leave it. The Thames goes down then to a wide grey vacuity, a featureless monotony where men but toil, where life becomes silent in effort, and goes out through fogs to nowhere in particular. But there is a hill-top at Woolwich from which, better than from Richmond, our River, the burden-bearer, the road which joins us to New York and Sydney, can be seen for what it is, plainly related to a vaster world, with the ships upon its bright path moving through the smoke and buildings of the City. And surely some surmise of what our River is comes to a few of that multitude who cross London Bridge every day? They favour the east side of it, I have noticed, and they cannot always resist a pause to stare overside to the Pool. Why do they? Ships are there, it is true, but only insignificant traders, diminished by sombre cliffs up which their cargo is hauled piece-meal to vanish instantly into mid-air caverns; London absorbs all they have as morsels. Anyhow, it is the business of ships. The people on the bridge watch another life below, with its strange cries and mysterious movements. A leisurely wisp of steam rises from a steamer's funnel. She is alive and breathing, though motionless. The walls enclosing the Pool are spectral in a winter light, and might be no more than the almost forgotten memory of a dark past. Looking at them intently, to give them a name, the wayfarer on the bridge could imagine they were maintained there only by the frail effort of his will. Once they were, but now, in some moods, they are merely remembered. Only the men busy on the deck of the ship below are real. Through an arch beneath the feet a barge shoots out noiselessly on the ebb, and staring down at its sudden apparition you feel dizzily that it has the bridge in tow, and that all you people on it are being drawn unresisting into that lower world of shades. You release yourself from this spell with an effort, and look at the faces of those who are beside you at the parapet. What are their thoughts? Do they know? Have they also seen the ghosts? Have they felt stirring a secret and forgotten desire, old memories, tales that were told? They move away and go to their desks, or to their homes in the suburbs. A vessel that has hauled into the fairway calls for the Tower Bridge gates to be opened for her. She is going. We watch the eastern mists take her from us. For we never are so passive and well-disciplined to the things which compel us but rebellion comes at times—misgiving that there is a world beyond the one we know, regret that we never ventured and made no discovery, and that our time has been saved and not spent. The gates to the outer world close again.
There, where that ship vanished, is the highway which brought those unknown folk whose need created London out of reeds and mere. It is our oldest road, and now has many bypaths. Near Poverty Corner is a building which recently was dismissed with a brief, humorous reference in a new guide to our City—a cobbled forecourt, tame pigeons, cabs, a brick front topped by a clock-face: Fenchurch Street Station. Beyond its dingy platforms, the metal track which contracts into the murk is the road to China, though that is, perhaps, the last place you would guess to be at the end of it. The train runs over a wilderness of tiles, a grey plateau of bare slate and rock, its expanse cracked and scored as though by a withering heat. Nothing grows there; nothing could live there. Smoke still pours from it, as though it were volcanic, from numberless vents. The region is without sap. Above its expanse project superior fumaroles, their drifting vapours dissolving great areas. When the track descends slightly, you see cavities in that cliff which runs parallel with your track. The desert is actually burrowed, and every hole in the plateau is a habitation. Something does live there. That region of burnt and fissured rock is tunneled and inhabited. The unlikely serrations and ridges with the smoke moving over them are porous, and a fluid life ranges beneath unseen. It is the beginning of Dockland. That the life is in upright beings, each with independent volition and a soul; that it is not an amorphous movement, flowing in bulk through buried pipes, incapable of the idea of height, of rising, it is difficult to believe. It has not been believed. If life, you protest, is really there, has any purpose which is better than that of extending worm-like through the underground, then why, at intervals, is there not an upheaval, a geyser-like burst, a plain hint from a power usually pent, but liable to go skywards? But that is for the desert to answer. As by mocking chance the desert itself almost instantly shows what possibilities are hidden within it. The train roars unexpectedly over a viaduct, and below is a deep hollow filled with light, with a floor of water, and a surprise of ships. How did that white schooner get into such an enclosure? Is freedom nearer here than we thought?
The crust of roofs ends abruptly in a country which is a complexity of gasometers, canals, railway junctions, between which cabbage fields in long spokes radiate from the train and revolve. There is the grotesque suggestion of many ships in the distance, for through gaps in a nondescript horizon masts appear in a kaleidoscopic way. The journey ends, usually in the rain, among iron sheds that are topped on the far side by the rigging and smoke-stacks of great liners. There is no doubt about it now. At the corner of one shed, sheltering from the weather, is a group of brown men in coloured rags, first seen in the gloom because of the whites of their eyes. What we remember of such a day is that it was half of night, and the wind hummed in the cordage, and swayed wildly the loose gear aloft. Towering hulls were ranged down each side of a lagoon that ended in vacancy. The rigging and funnels of the fleet were unrelated; those ships were phantom and monstrous. They seemed on too great a scale to be within human control. We felt diminished and a little fearful, as among the looming urgencies of a dream. The forms were gigantic but vague, and they were seen in a smother of the elements; and their sounds, deep and mournful, were like the warnings of something alien, yet without form, which we knew was adverse, but could not recall when awake again. We remember, that day, a few watchers insecure on an exposed dockhead that projected into a sullen dreariness of river and mud which could have been the finish of the land. At the end of a creaking hawser was a steamer canting as she backed to head downstream—now she was exposed to a great adventure—the tide rapid and noisy on her plates, the reek from her funnel sinking over the water. And from the dockhead, in the fuddle of a rain-squall, we were waving a handkerchief, probably to the wrong man, till the vessel went out where all was one—rain, river, mud, and sky, and the future.
It is afterwards that so strange an ending to a brief journey from a City station is seen to have had more in it than the time-table, hurriedly scanned, gave away. Or it would be remembered as strange, if the one who had to make that journey as much as thought of it again; for perhaps to a stranger occupied with more important matters it was passed as being quite relevant to the occasion, ordinary and rather dismal, the usual boredom of a duty. Its strangeness depends, very likely, as much on an idle and squandering mind as on the ships, the River, and the gasometers. Yet suppose you first saw the River from Blackwall Stairs, in the days when the windows of the Artichoke Tavern, an ancient, weather-boarded house with benches outside, still looked towards the ships coming in! And how if then, one evening, you had seen a Blackwall liner haul out for the Antipodes while her crew sang a chanty! It might put another light on the River, but a light, I will admit, which others should not be expected to see, and if they looked for it now might not discover, for it is possible that it has vanished, like the old tavern. It is easy to persuade ourselves that a matter is made plain by the light in which we prefer to see it, for it is our light.
One day, I remember, a boy had to take a sheaf of documents to a vessel loading in the London Dock. She was sailing that tide. It was a hot July noon. It is unlucky to send a boy, who is marked by all the omens for a City prisoner, to that dock, for it is one of the best of its kind. He had not been there before. There was an astonishing vista, once inside the gates, of sherry butts and port casks. On the flagstones were pools of wine lees. There was an unforgettable smell. It was of wine, spices, oakum, wool, and hides. The sun made it worse, but the boy, I think, preferred it strong. After wandering along many old quays, and through the openings of dark sheds that, on so sunny a day, were stored with cool night and cubes and planks of gold, he found his ship, the Mulatto Girl. She was for the Brazils. Now it is clear that one even wiser in shipping affairs than a boy would have expected to see a craft that was haughty and portentous when bound for the Brazils, a ship that looked equal to making a coast of that kind. There she was, her flush deck well below the quay wall. A ladder went down to her, for she was no more than a schooner of a little over one hundred tons. If that did not look like the beginning of one of those voyages reputed to have ended with the Elizabethans, then I am trying to convey a wrong impression. On the deck of the Mulatto Girl was her master, in shirt and trousers and a remarkable straw hat more like a canopy, bending over to discharge some weighty words into the hatch. He rose and looked up at the boy on the quay, showing then a taut black beard and formidable eyes. With his hands on his hips, he surveyed for a few seconds, without speaking, the messenger above. Then he talked business, and more than legitimate business. "Do you want to come?" he asked, and smiled. "Eh?" He stroked his beard. (The Brazils and all! A ship like that!) "There's a berth for you. Come along, my son." And observe what we may lose through that habit of ours of uncritical obedience to duty; see what may leave us for ever in that fatal pause, caused by the surprise of the challenge to our narrow experience and knowledge, the pause in which we allow habit to overcome adventurous instinct! I never heard again of the Mulatto Girl. I could not expect to. Something, though, was gained that day. It cannot be named. It is of no value. It is, you may have guessed, that very light which it has been admitted may since have gone out.
Well, nobody who has ever surprised that light in Dockland will be persuaded that it is not there still, and will remain. But what could strangers see of it? The foreshore to them is the unending monotony of grey streets, sometimes grim, often decayed, and always reticent and sullen, that might never have seen the stars nor heard of good luck; and the light would be, when closely looked at, merely a high gas bracket on a dank wall in solitude, its glass broken, and the flame within it fluttering to extinction like an imprisoned and crippled moth trying to evade the squeeze of giant darkness and the wind. The narrow and forbidding by-path under that glim, a path intermittent and depending on the weight of the night which is trying to blot it out altogether, goes to Wapping Old Stairs. Prince Rupert once went that way. The ketch Nonsuch, Captain Zachary Gillam, was then lying just off, about to make the voyage which established the Hudson's Bay Company.
It is a path, like all those stairs and ways that go down to the River, which began when human footsteps first outlined London with rough tracks. It is a path by which the descendants of those primitives went out of London, when projecting the original enterprise of their forbears from Wapping to the Guinea Coast and Manitoba. Why should we believe it is different today? The sea does not change, and seamen are what they were if their ships are not those we admired many years ago in the India Docks. It is impossible for those who know them to see those moody streets of Dockland, indeterminate, for they follow the River, which run from Tooley Street by the Hole-in-the-Wall to the Deptford docks, and from Tower Hill along Wapping High Street to Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs, as strangers would see them. What could they be to strangers? Mud, taverns, pawnshops, neglected and obscure churches, and houses that might know nothing but ill-fortune.
So they are; but those ways hold more than the visible shades. The warehouses of that meandering chasm which is Wapping High Street are like weathered and unequal cliffs. It is hard to believe sunlight ever falls there. It could not get down. It is not easy to believe the River is near. It seldom shows. You think at times you hear the distant call of a ship. But what would that be? Something in the mind. It happened long ago. You, too, are a ghost left by the vanished past. There is a man above at a high loophole, the topmost cave of a warehouse which you can see has been exposed to commerce and the elements for ages; he pulls in a bale pendulous from the cable of a derrick. Below him one of the horses of a van tosses its nose-bag. There is no other movement. A carman leans against an iron post, and cuts bread and cheese with a clasp-knife. It was curious to hear that steamer call, but we knew what it was. It was from a ship that went down, we have lately heard, in the War, and her spectre reminds us, from a voyage which is over, of men we shall see no more. But the call comes again just where the Stairs, like a shining wedge of day, hold the black warehouses asunder, and give us the light of the River and a release to the outer world. And there, moving swiftly across the brightness, goes a steamer outward bound.
That was what we wanted to know. She confirms it, and her signal, to whomever it was made, carries farther than she would guess. It is understood. The past for some of us now is our only populous and habitable world, invisible to others, but alive with whispers for us. Yet the sea still moves daily along the old foreshore, and ships still come and go, and do not, like us, run aground on what now is not there.
II. A Midnight Voyage
Our voyage was to begin at midnight from near Limehouse Hole. The hour and the place have been less promising in the beginning of many a strange adventure. Where the voyage would end could not be said, except that it would be in Bugsby's Reach, and at some time or other. It was now ten o'clock, getting towards sailing time, and the way to the foreshore was unlighted and devious. Yet it was somewhere near. This area of still and empty night railed off from the glare of the Commercial Road would be Limehouse Church. It is foolish to suppose you know the Tower Hamlets because you have seen them by day. They change. They are like those uncanny folk of the fables. At night, wonderfully, they become something else, take another form, which has never been more than glimpsed, and another character, so fabulous and secret that it will support the tales of the wildest romanticist, who rightly feels that if such yarns were told of 'Frisco or Timbuctoo they might get found out. Was this the church? Three Chinamen were disputing by its gate. Perhaps they were in disagreement as to where the church would be in daylight.
At a corner where the broad main channel of electric light ended, and perplexity began, a policeman stood, and directed me into chaos. "Anywhere," he explained, "anywhere down there will do." I saw a narrow alley in the darkness, which had one gas lamp and many cobbled stones. At the bottom of the lane were three iron posts. Beyond the posts a bracket lamp showed a brick wall, and in the wall was an arch so full of gloom that it seemed impassable, except to a steady draught of cold air that might have been the midnight itself entering Limehouse from its own place. At the far end of that opening in the wall was nothing. I stood on an invisible wooden platform and looked into nothing with no belief that a voyage could begin from there. Before me then should have been the Thames, at the top of the flood tide. It was not seen. There was only a black void dividing some clusters of brilliant but remote and diminished lights. There were odd stars which detached themselves from the fixed clusters, and moved in the void, sounding the profundity of the chasm beneath them with lines of trembling fire. Such a wandering comet drifted near where I stood on the verge of nothing, and then it was plain that its trail of quivering light did not sound, but floated and undulated on a travelling road—that chasm before me was black because it was filled with fluid night. Night, I discovered suddenly, was in irresistible movement. It was swift and heavy. It was unconfined. It was welling higher to douse our feeble glims and to founder London, built of shadows on its boundary. It moved with frightful quietness. It seemed confident of its power. It swirled and eddied by the piles of the wharf, and there it found a voice, though that was muffled; yet now and then it broke into levity for a moment, as at some shrouded and alien jest.
There were sounds which reached me at last from the opposite shore, faint with distance and terror. The warning from an unseen steamer going out was as if a soul, crossing this Styx, now knew all. There is no London on the Thames, after sundown. Most of us know very little of the River by day. It might then be no more native to our capital than the Orientals who stand under the Limehouse gas lamps at night. It surprises us. We turn and look at it from our seat in a tram, and watch a barge going down on the ebb—it luckily misses the piers of Blackfriars Bridge—as if a door had unexpectedly opened on a mystery, revealing another world in London, and another sort of life than ours. It is as uncanny as if we had sensed another dimension of space. The tram gets among the buildings again, and we are reassured by the confined and arid life we know. But what a light and width had that surprising world where we saw a barge drifting as leisurely as though the narrow limits which we call reality were there unknown!
But after dark there is not only no River, when you stand where by day is its foreshore; there is no London. Then, looking out from Limehouse, you might be the only surviving memory of a city that has vanished. You might be solitary among the unsubstantial shades, for about you are only comets passing through space, and inscrutable shapes; your neighbours are Cassiopeia and the Great Bear.
But where was our barge, the Lizzie? I became aware abruptly of the skipper of this ship for our midnight voyage among the stars. He had his coat-collar raised. The Lizzie, he said, was now free of the mud, and he was going to push off. Sitting on a bollard, and pulling out his tobacco-pouch, he said he hadn't had her out before. Sorry he'd got to do it now. She was a bitch. She bucked her other man overboard three days ago. They hadn't found him yet. They found her down by Gallions Reach. Jack Jones was the other chap. Old Rarzo they called him. Took more than a little to give him that colour. But he was All Right. They were going to give a benefit concert for his wife and kids. Jack's brother was going to sing; good as Harry Lauder, he is.
Below us a swirl of water broke into mirth, instantly suppressed. We could see the Lizzie now. The ripples slipped round her to the tune of they-'avn't-found-'im-yet, they-'avn't-found-'im-yet-they 'avn't. The skipper and crew rose, fumbling at his feet for a rope. There did not seem to be much of the Lizzie. She was but a little raft to drift out on those tides which move among the stars. "Now's your chance," said her crew, and I took it, on all fours. The last remnant of London was then pushed from us with a pole. We were launched on night, which had begun its ebb towards morning.
The punt sidled away obliquely for mid-stream. I stood at one end of it. The figure of Charon could be seen at the other, of long acquaintance with this passage, using his sweep with the indifference of habitude. Perhaps it was not Charon. Yet there was some obstruction to the belief that we were bound for no more than the steamer Aldebaran, anchored in Bugsby's Reach. From the low deck of the barge it was surprising that the River, whose name was Night, was content with the height to which it had risen. Perhaps it was taking its time. It might soon receive an influx from space, rise then in a silent upheaval, and those low shadows that were London, even now half foundered, would at once go. This darkness was an irresponsible power. It was the same flood which had sunk Knossos and Memphis. It was tranquil, indifferent, knowing us not, reckoning us all one with the Sumerians. They were below it. It had risen above them. Now the time had come when it was laving the base of London.
The crew cried out to us that over there was the entrance to the West India Dock. We knew that place in another life. But should Charon joke with us? We saw only chaos, in which the beams from a reputed city glimmered without purpose.
The shadow of the master of our black barge pulled at his sweep with a slow confidence that was fearful amid what was sightless and unknown. His pipe glowed, as with the profanity of an immortal to whom eternity and infinity are of the usual significance. Then a red and green eye appeared astern, and there was a steady throbbing as if some monster were in pursuit of us. A tug shaped near us, drew level, and exposed with its fires, as it went ahead, a radiant Lizzie on an area of water that leaped in red flames. The furnace door of the tug was shut, and at once we were blind. "Hold hard," yelled our skipper, and the Lizzie slipped into the turmoil of the tug's wake.
There would be Millwall. The tug and the turmoil had gone. We were alone again in the beyond. There was no sound now but the water spattering under our craft, and the fumbling and infrequent splash of the sweep. Once we heard the miniature bark of a dog, distinct and fine, as though distance had refined it as well as reduced it. We were nearly round the loop the River makes about Millwall, and this unknown region before us was Blackwall Reach by day, and Execution Dock used to be dead ahead. To the east, over the waters, red light exploded fan-wise and pulsed on the clouds latent above, giving them momentary form. It was as though, from the place where it starts, the dawn had been released too soon, and was at once recalled. "The gas works," said the skipper.
Still the slow drift, quite proper to those at large in eternity. But this, I was told, was the beginning of Bugsby's Reach. It was first a premonition, then a doubt, and at last a distinct tremor in the darkness ahead of us. A light appeared, grew nearer, higher, and brighter, and there was a suspicion of imminent mass. "Watch her," warned the skipper. Watch what? There was nothing to watch but the dark and some planets far away, one of them red. The menacing one still grew higher and brighter. It came at us. A wall instantly appeared to overhang us, with a funnel and masts above it, and our skipper's yell was lost in the thunder of a churning propeller. The air shuddered, and a siren hooted in the heavens. A long, dark body seemed minutes going by us, and our skipper's insults were taken in silence by her superior deck. She left us riotous in her wake, and we continued our journey dancing our indignation on the uneasy deck of the Lizzie.
The silent drift recommenced, and we neared a region of unearthly lights and the smell of sulphur, where aerial skeletons, vast and black, and columns and towers, alternately glowed and vanished as the doors of infernal fires were opened and shut. We drew abreast of this phantom place where names and darkness battled amid gigantic ruin. Charon spoke. "They're the coal wharves," he said.
The lights of a steamer rose in the night below the wharves, but it was our own progress which brought them nearer. She was anchored. We made out at last her shape, but at first she did not answer our hail.
"Hullo, Aldebaran," once more roared our captain.
There was no answer. In a minute we should be by her, and too late.
"Barge ahoy!" came a voice. "Look out for a line."
III. A Shipping Parish
What face this shipping parish shows to a stranger I do not know. I was never a stranger to it. I should suppose it to be a face almost vacant, perhaps a little conventionally picturesque, for it is grey and seamed. It might be even an altogether expressionless mask, staring at nothing. Anyhow, there must be very little to be learned from it, for those bright young cultured strangers, admirable in their eagerness for social service, who come and live with us for a time, so that they may understand the life of the poor, never seem to have made anything of us. They say they have; they speak even with some amount of assurance, at places where the problem which is us is examined aloud by confident politicians and churchfolk. But I think they know well enough that they always failed to get anywhere near what mind we have. There is a reason for it, of course. Think of honest and sociable Mary Ann, of Pottles Rents, E., having been alarmed by the behaviour of good society, as it is betrayed in the popular picture Press, making odd calls in Belgravia (the bells for visitors, too), to bring souls to God.
My parish, to strangers, must be opaque with its indifference. It stares beyond the interested visitor, in the way the sad and disillusioned have, to things it supposes a stranger would not understand if he were told. He has reason, therefore, to say we are dull. And Dockland, with its life so uniform that it could be an amorphous mass overflowing a reef of brick cells, I think would be distressing to a sensitive stranger, and even a little terrifying, as all that is alive but inexplicable must be. No more conscious purpose shows in our existence than is seen in the coral polyp. We just go on increasing and forming more cells. Overlooking our wilderness of tiles in the rain—we get more than a fair share of rain, or else the sad quality of wet weather is more noticeable in such a place as ours—it seems a dismal affair to present for the intelligent labours of mankind for generations. Could nothing better have been done than that? What have we been busy about?
Well, what are people busy about anywhere? Human purpose here has been as blind and sporadic as it is at Westminster, unrelated to any fixed star, lucky to fill the need of the day, building without any distant design, flowing in bulk through the lowest channels that offered. As elsewhere, it is obstructed by the unrecognized mistakes of its past. Our part of London, like Kensington or Islington, is but the formless accretion of countless swarms of life which had no common endeavour; and so here we are, Time's latest deposit, the vascular stratum of this area of the earth's rind, a sensitive surface flourishing during its day on the piled strata of the dead. Yet this is the reef to which I am connected by tissue and bone. Cut the kind of life you find in Poplar and I must bleed. I cannot detach myself, and write of it. Like any other atom, I would show the local dirt, if examined. My hand moves, not loyally so much as instinctively, to impulses which come from beneath and so out of a stranger's knowledge; out of my own, too, largely.
Is that all? Not quite. Where you, if you came to us, would see but an unremarkable level of East-Enders, much like other Londoners, with no past worth recording, and no future likely to be worth a book of gold, I see, looking to the past, a spectral show of fine ships and brave affairs, and good men forgotten, or almost forgotten, and moving among the plainer shades of its foreground some ghosts well known to me. I think they were what are called failures in life. And turning from those shades, and their work which went the way of all forgotten stuff before the inexorable tide of affairs, I look forward from Poplar, unreasonably hopeful (for so we are made), though this time into the utter dark, for the morning that shall show us the more enduring towers of the city of our dreams, the heart of the commune, the radiant spires of the city that shall be lovelier than that dear city of Cecrops.
But for those whose place it is not, memories and dreams can do nothing to transform it. Dockland would seem to others as any alien town would seem to me. There is something, though, you must grant us, a heritage peculiarly ours. Amid our packed tenements, into the dark mass where poorer London huddles as my shipping parish, are set our docks. Embayed in the obscurity are those areas of captured day, reservoirs of light brimmed daily by the tides of the sun, silver mirrors through which one may leave the dark floor of Poplar for radiant other worlds. We have our ships and docks, and the River at Blackwall when night and the flood come together, and walls and roofs which topmasts and funnels surmount, suggestions of a vagabondage hidden in what seemed so arid a commonplace desert. These are of first importance. They are our ways of escape. We are not kept within a division of the map. And Orion, he strides over our roofs on bright winter nights. We have the immortals. At the most, your official map sets us only lateral bounds. The heavens here are as high as elsewhere. Our horizon is beyond our own limits. In this faithful chronicle of our parish I must tell of our boundaries as I know them. They are not so narrow as you might think. Maps cannot be so carefully planned, nor walls built high enough nor streets confined and strict enough, to hold within limits our lusty and growing population of thoughts. There is no census you can take which will give you forewarning of what is growing here, of the way we increase and expand. Take care. Some day, when we discover the time has come for it, we shall tell our numbers, and be sure you will then learn the result. Travelling through our part of the country, you see but our appearance. You go, and report us casually to your friends, and forget us. But when you feel the ground moving under your feet, that will be us.
From my high window in central Dockland, as from a watch tower, I look out over a tumbled waste of roofs and chimneys, a volcanic desert, inhabited only by sparrows and pigeons. Humanity burrows in swarms below that surface of crags, but only faint cries tell me that the rocks are caverned and inhabited, that life flows there unseen through subterranean galleries. Often, when the sunrise over the roofs is certainly the coming of Aurora, as though then the first illumination of the sky heralded the veritable dayspring for which we look, and the gods were nearly here, I have watched for that crust beneath, which seals the sleepers under, to heave and roll, to burst, and for released humanity to pour through fractures, from the lower dark, to be renewed in the fires of the morning. Nothing has happened yet. But I am confident it would repay society to appoint another watcher when I am gone, to keep an eye on the place.
Right below my window there are two ridges running in parallel jags of chimneys, with a crevasse between them to which I can see no bottom. But a roadway is there. From an acute angle of the window a cornice overhangs a sheer fall of cliff. That is as near the ground as can be got from my outlook. Several superior peaks rise out of the wilderness, where the churches are; and beyond the puzzling middle distance, where smoke dissolves all form, loom the dock warehouses, a continuous range of far dark heights. I have thoughts of a venturesome and lonely journey by moonlight, in and out of the chimney stacks, and all the way to the distant mountains. It looks inviting, and possible, by moonlight. And, indeed, any bright day in summer, from my window, Dockland with its goblin-like chimneys might be the enchanted country of a child's dream, where shapes, though inanimate, are watchful and protean. From that silent world legions of grotesques move out of the shadows at a touch of sunlight, and then, when you turn on them in surprise, become thin and vague, either phantoms or smoke, and dissolve. The freakish light shows in little what happens in the long run to man's handiwork, for it accelerates the speed of change till change is fast enough for you to watch a town grow and die. You see that Dockland is unstable, is in flux, alters in colours and form. I doubt whether the people below are sensitive to this ironic display on their roofs.
My eyes more frequently go to one place in that high country. In that distant line of warehouses is a break, and there occasionally I see the masts and spars of a tall ship, and I remember that beyond my dark horizon of warehouses is the path down which she has come from the Indies to Blackwall. I said we were not inland. Cassiopeia is in that direction, and China over there.
For my outlook is more than the centre of Dockland. I call it the centre of the world. Our high road is part of the main thoroughfare from Kensington to Valparaiso. Every wanderer must come this way at least once in his life. We are the hub whence all roads go to the circumference. A ship does not go down but we hear the cry of distress, and the house of a neighbour rocks on the flood and is lost, casting its people adrift on the blind tides.
Think of some of our street names—Malabar Street, Amoy Place, Nankin Street, Pekin Street, Canton Street. And John Company has left its marks. You pick up hints of the sea here as you pick old shells out of dunes. We have, still nourishing in a garden, John Company's Chapel of St. Matthias, a fragment of a time that was, where now the vigorous commercial life of the Company shows no evidence whatever of its previous urgent importance. Founded in the time of the Commonwealth as a symbol for the Company's men who, when in rare moments they looked up from the engrossing business of their dominant hours, desired a reminder of the ineffable things beyond ships and cargoes, the Chapel has survived all the changes which destroyed their ships and scattered the engrossing business of their working hours into dry matter for antiquaries. So little do men really change. They always leave their temples, whether they lived in Poplar or Nineveh. Only the names of their gods change. The Chapel at Poplar it was then, when this shipping parish had no docks, and the nearest church was over the fields to Stepney. Our vessels then lay in the river. We got our first dock, that of the West India Merchants, at the beginning of last century. A little later the East India Dock was built by John Company. Then another phase began to reshape Dockland. There came a time when the Americans looked in a fair way, sailing ahead fast with the wonderful clippers Donald McKay was building at Boston, to show us a tow rope. The best sailers ever launched were those Yankee ships, and the Thames building yards were working to create the ideal clipper which should beat them. This really was the last effort of sails, for steamers were on the seas, and the Americans were actually making heroic efforts to smother them with canvas. Mr. Green, of Poplar, worried over those Boston craft, declared we must be first again, and first we were. But both Boston and Poplar, in their efforts to perfect an old idea, did not see a crude but conquering notion taking form to magnify and hasten both commerce and war.
But they were worth doing, those clippers, and worth remembering. They sail clear into our day as imperishable memories. They still live, for they did far more than carry merchandise. When an old mariner speaks of the days of studding sails it is not the precious freight, the real purpose of his ships, which animates his face. What we always remember afterwards is not the thing we did, or tried to do, but the friends who were about us at the time. But our stately ships themselves, with our River their home, which gave Poplar's name, wherever they went, a ring on the counter like a sound guinea, at the most they are now but planks bearded with sea grass, lost in ocean currents, sighted only by the albatross.
Long ago nearly every home in Dockland treasured a lithographic portrait of one of the beauties, framed and hung where visitors could see it as soon as they entered the door. Each of us knew one of them, her runs and her records, the skipper and his fads, the owner and his prejudice about the last pennyworth of tar. She was not a transporter to us, an earner of freights, something to which was attached a profit and loss account and an insurance policy. She had a name. She was a sentient being, perhaps noble, perhaps wilful; she might have any quality of character, even malice. I have seen hands laid on her with affection in dock, when those who knew her were telling me of her ways.
To few of the newer homes among the later streets of Dockland is that beautiful lady's portrait known. Here and there it survives, part of the flotsam which has drifted through the years with grandmother's sandalwood chest, the last of the rush-bottomed chairs, and the lacquered tea-caddy. I well remember a room from which such survivals were saved when the household ship ran on a coffin, and foundered. It was a front parlour in one of the streets with an Oriental name; which, I cannot be expected to remember, for when last I was in that room I was lifted to sit on one of its horsehair chairs, its seat like a hedgehog, and I was cautioned to sit still. It was rather a long drop to the floor from a chair for me in those days, and though sitting still was hard, sliding part of the way would have been much worse. That was a room for holy days, too, a place for good behaviour, and boots profaned it. Its door was nearly always shut and locked, and only the chance formal visit of respect-worthy strangers brought down its key from the top shelf of the kitchen dresser. That key was seldom used for relatives, except at Christmas, or when one was dead. The room was always sombre. Light filtered into it through curtains of wire gauze, fixed in the window by mahogany frames. Over the door by which you entered was the picture of an uncle, too young and jolly for that serious position, I thought then, with his careless neckcloth, and his cap pulled down over one eye. The gilt moulding was gone from a corner of the picture—the only flaw in the prim apartment—for once that portrait fell to the floor, and on the very day, it was guessed, that his ship must have foundered.
A round table set on a central thick leg having a three-clawed foot was in that chamber, covered with a cloth on which was worked a picture from the story of Ruth. But only puzzling bits of the latter were to be seen, for on the circumference of the table-cover were books, placed at precise distances apart, and in the centre was a huge Bible, with a brass clasp. With many others my name was in the Bible, and my birthday, and a space left blank for the day of my death. Reflected in the pier-glass which doubled the room were the portraits in oils of my grandparents, looking wonderfully young, as you may have noticed is often the case in people belonging to ancient history, as though, strangely enough, people were the same in those remote days, except that they wore different clothes.
I have often sat on the chair, and when patience had inured me to the spines of the area I occupied, looked at the reflections in the mirror of those portraits, for they seemed more distant so, and in a perspective according to their age, and became really my grandparents, in a room, properly, of another world, which could be seen, but was not. A room no one could enter any more. I remember a black sofa, which smelt of dust, an antimacassar over its head. That sofa would wake to squeak tales if I stood on it to inspect the model of a ship in yellow ivory, resting on a wall-bracket above. There were many old shells in the polished brass fender, some with thick orange lips and spotted backs; others were spirals of mother-o'-pearl, which took different colours for every way you held them. You could get the only sound in the room by putting the shells to your ear. Like the people of the portraits, it was impossible to believe the shells had ever lived. The inside of the grate was filled with white paper, and the trickles of fine black dust which rested in its crevices would start and run stealthily when people walked in the next room. Over the looking-glass there hung a pair of immense buffalo horns, with a piece of curly black hair dividing them which looked like the skin of our retriever dog. Above the horns was the picture of "The Famous Tea Clipper Oberon, setting her Studding Sails off the Lizard"; but so high was the print, and so faint—for the picture, too, was old—that some one grown up had to tell me all about it.
The clipper Oberon long since sailed to the Isle-of-No-Land-at-All, and the room in which her picture hung has gone also, like old Dockland, and is now no more than something remembered. The clipper's picture went with the wreckage, when the room was strewn, and I expect in that house today there is a photograph of a steamer with two funnels.
Nothing conjures back that room so well as the recollection of a strange odour which fell from it when its door opened, as though something bodiless passed as we entered. There was never anything in the room which alone could account for the smell, for it had in it something of the sofa, which was old and black, and of the lacquered tea-caddy, within the lid of which was the faint ghost of a principle indefinably ancient and rare; and there was in it, too, something of the shells. But you could never find where the smell really came from. I have tried, and know. A recollection of that strange dusky fragrance brings back the old room on a summer afternoon, so sombre that the mahogany sideboard had its own reddish light, so quiet that the clock could be heard ticking in the next room; time, you could hear, going leisurely. There would be a long lath of sunlight, numberless atoms swimming in it, slanting from a corner of the window to brighten a patch of carpet. Two flies would be hovering under the ceiling. Sometimes they would dart at a tangent to hover in another place. I used to wonder what they lived on. You felt secure there, knowing it was old, but seeing things did not alter, as though the world were established and content, desiring no new thing. I did not know that the old house, even then, quiet and still as it seemed, was actually rocking on the flood of mutable affairs; that its navigator, sick with anxiety and bewilderment in guiding his home in the years he did not understand, which his experience had never charted, was sinking nerveless at his helm. For he heard, when his children did not, the premonition of breakers in seas having no landmark that he knew; felt the trend and push of new and inimical forces, and currents that carried him helpless, whither he would not go, but must, heartbroken, into the uproar and welter of the modern.
I have been told that London east of the Tower has no history worth mentioning, and it is true that sixteenth-century prints show the town to finish just where the Dock of St. Katherine is now. Beyond that, and only marshes show, with Stebonhithe Church and a few other signs to mark recognizable country. On the south side the marshes were very extensive, stretching from the River inland for a considerable distance. The north shore was fen also, but a little above the tides was a low eminence, a clay and gravel cliff, that sea-wall which now begins below the Albert Dock and continues round the East Anglian seaboard. Once it serpentined as far as the upper Pool, disappearing as the wharves and docks were built to accommodate London's increasing commerce. There is no doubt, then, that the Lower Thames parishes are really young; but, when we are reminded that they have no history worth mentioning, it may be understood that the historian is simply not interested enough to mention it.
So far as age goes my shipping parish cannot compare with a cathedral city; but antiquity is not the same as richness of experience. One remembers the historic and venerable tortoise. He is old enough, compared with us. But he has had nothing so varied and lively as the least of us can show. Most of his reputed three hundred years is sleep, no doubt, and the rest vegetables. In the experience of Wapping, Poplar, Rotherhithe, Limehouse, and Deptford, when they really came to life, there was precious little sleep, and no vegetables worth mentioning. They were quick and lusty. There they stood, long knee-deep and busy among their fleets, sometimes rising to cheer when a greater adventure was sailing or returning, some expedition that was off to find further avenues through the Orient or the Americas, or else a broken craft bringing back tragedy from the Arctic; ship after ship; great captain after great captain. No history worth mentioning! There are Londoners who cannot taste the salt. Yet, no doubt, it is difficult for younger London to get the ocean within its horizon. The memory of the Oberon, that famous ship, is significant to me, for she has gone, with all her fleet, and some say she took Poplar's best with her. Once we were a famous shipping parish. Now we are but part of the East End of London. The steamers have changed us. The tides do not rise high enough today, and our shallow waters cannot make home for the new keels.
But to the old home now the last of the sailing fleet is loyal. We have enough still to show what once was there; the soft gradations of a ship's entrance, rising into bows and bowsprit, like the form of a comber at its limit, just before it leaps forward in collapse. The mounting spars, alive and braced. The swoop and lift of the sheer, the rich and audacious colours, the strange flags and foreign names. South Sea schooner, whaling barque from Hudson's Bay, the mahogany ship from Honduras, the fine ships and barques that still load for the antipodes and 'Frisco. Every season they diminish, but some are still with us. At Tilbury, where the modern liners are, you get wall sides mounting like great hotels with tier on tier of decks, and funnels soaring high to dominate the day. There the prospect of masts is a line of derrick poles. But still in the upper docks is what will soon have gone for ever from London, a dark haze of spars and rigging, with sometimes a white sail floating in it like a cloud. We had a Russian barquentine there yesterday. I think a barquentine is the most beautiful of ships, the most aerial and graceful of rigs, the foremast with its transverse spars giving breadth and balance, and steadying the unhindered lift skywards of main and mizzen poles. The model of this Russian ship was as memorable as a Greek statue. It is a ship's sheer which gives loveliness to her model, like the waist of a lissom woman, finely poised, sure of herself, in profile. She was so slight a body, so tall and slender, but standing alert and illustriously posed, there was implied in her slenderness a rare strength and swiftness. And to her beauty of line there went a richness of colour which made our dull parish a notable place. She was of wood, painted white. Her masts were of pine, veined with amber. Her white hull, with the drenchings of the seas, had become shot with ultramarine shadows, as though tinctured with the virtue of the ocean. The verdigris of her sheathing was vivid as green light; and the languid dock water, the colour of jade, glinting round her hull, was lambent with hues not its own. You could believe there was a soft radiation from that ship's sides which fired the water about her, but faded when far from her sides, a delicate and faery light which soon expired.
Such are our distinguished visitors in Dockland, though now they come to us with less frequency. If the skipper of the Oberon could now look down the Dock Road from the corner by North Street, what he would look for first would be, not, I am sure, what compelled the electric trams, but for the entrance of the East Dock and its familiar tangle of spars. He would not find it. The old dock is there, but a lagoon asleep, and but few vessels sleeping with it. The quays are vacant, except for the discarded lumber of ships, sun-dried boats, rusted cables and anchors, and a pile of broken davits. The older dock of the West India Merchants is almost the same. Yet even I have seen the bowsprits and jib-booms of the Australian packets diminish down the quays of the East Dock as an arcade; and of that West Dock there is a boy who well remembers its quays buried under the largess of the tropics and the Spanish Main, where now, through the colonnades of its warehouse supports, the vistas are empty. Once you had to squeeze sideways through the stacked merchandise. There were huge hogsheads of sugar and hillocks of coconuts. Molasses and honey escaped to spread a viscid carpet which held your feet. The casual prodigality of it expanded the mind. Certainly this earth must be a big and cheerful place if it could spread its treasures thus wide and deep in a public place under the sky. It corrected the impression got from the retail shops for any penniless youngster, with that pungent odour of sugar crushed under foot, with its libations of syrup poured from the plenty of the sunny isles. Today the quays are bare and deserted, and grass rims the stones of the footway, as verdure does the neglected stone covers in a churchyard. In the dusk of a winter evening the high and silent warehouses which enclose the mirrors of water enclose too an accentuation of the dusk. The water might be evaporating in shadows. The hulls of the few ships, moored beside the walls, become absorbed in the dark. Night withdraws their substance. What the solitary wayfarer sees then is the incorporeal presentment of ships. Dockland expires. The living and sounding day is elsewhere, lighting the new things on which the young are working. Here is the past, deep in the obscurity from which time has taken the sun, where only memory can go, and sees but the ineffaceable impression of what once was there.
There is a notable building in our Dock Road, the Board of Trade offices, retired a little way from the traffic behind a screen of plane trees. Not much more than its parapet appears behind the foliage. By those offices, on fine evenings, I find one of our ancients, Captain Tom Bowline. Why he favours the road there I do not know. It would be a reasonable reason, but occult. The electric trams and motor buses annoy him. And not one of the young stokers and deck-hands just ashore and paid off, or else waiting at a likely corner for news of a ship, could possibly know the skipper and his honourable records. They do not know that once, in that office, Tom was a famous and respected figure. There he stands at times, outside the place which knew him well, but has forgotten him, wearing his immemorial reefer jacket, his notorious tall white hat and his humorous trousers—short, round, substantial columns—with a broad line of braid down each leg.
His face is weather-stained still, and though his hair is white, it has the form of its early black and abundant vitality. As long ago as 1885 he landed from his last ship, and has been with us since, watching the landmarks go. "The sea," he said to me once, "the sea has gone. When I look down this road and see it so empty—(the simple truth is it was noisy with traffic)—I feel I've overstayed my time allowance. My ships are firewood and wreckage, my owners are only funny portraits in offices that run ten-thousand-ton steamers, and the boys are bones. Poplar? This isn't Poplar. I feel like Robinson Crusoe—only I can't find a footprint in the place."
It is for the young to remember there is no decay, though change, sometimes called progress, resembles it, especially when your work is finished and you are only waiting and looking on. When Captain Tom is in that mood we go to smoke a pipe at a dockhead. It will be high tide if we are in luck, and the sun will be going down to give our River majesty, and a steamer will be backing into the stream, outward bound. The quiet of a fine evening for Tom, and the great business of ships and the sea for me. We see the steamer's captain and its pilot leaning over the bridge, looking aft towards the River. I think the size of their vessel is a little awful to Tom. He never had to guide so many thousand tons of steel and cargo into a crowded waterway. But those two young fellows above know nothing of the change; they came with it. They are under their spell, thinking their world, as once Tom did his, established and permanent. They are keeping easy pace with the movement, and so do not know of it. Tom, now at rest, sitting on a pierhead bollard, sees the world leaving him, going ahead past his cogitating tobacco smoke. Let it go. We, watching quietly from our place on the pier-head, are wiser than the moving world in one respect. We know it does not know whence it is moving, nor why. Well, perhaps its presiding god, who is determined the world shall go round, would be foolish to tell us.
The sun has dropped behind the black serration of the western city. Now the River with all the lower world loses substance, becomes vaporous and unreal. Moving so fast then? But the definite sky remains, a hard dome of glowing saffron based on thin girders of iron clouds. The heaven alone is trite and plain. The wharves, the factories, the ships, the docks, all the material evidence of hope and industry, merge into a dim spectral show in which a few lights burn, fumbling with ineffectual beams in dissolution. Out on the River a dark body moves past; it has bright eyes, and hoots dismally as it goes.
There is a hush, as though at sunset the world had really resolved, and had stopped moving. But from the waiting steamer looming over us, a gigantic and portentous bulk, a thin wisp of steam hums from a pipe, and hangs across the vessel, a white wraith. Yet the hum of the steam is too subdued a sound in the palpable and oppressive dusk to be significant. Then a boatswain's pipe rends the heavy dark like the gleam of a sword, and a great voice, awed by nothing, roars from the steamer's bridge. There is a sudden commotion, we hear the voice again, and answering cries, and by us, towards the black chasm of the River in which hover groups of moving planets, the mass of the steamer glides, its pale funnel mounting over us like a column. Out she goes, turning broadside on, a shadow sprinkled with stars, then makes slow way down stream, a travelling constellation occulting one after another all the fixed lights.
Captain Tom knocks out his pipe on the heel of his boot, his eyes still on the lights of the steamer. "Well," says Tom, "they can still do it. They don't want any help old Tom could give aboard her. A good man there. Where's she bound for, I wonder?"
Now who could tell him that? What a question to ask me. Did Tom ever know his real destination? Not he! And have I not watched Dockland itself in movement under the sun, easily mobile, from my window in its midst? Whither was it bound? Why should the old master mariner expect the young to answer that? He is a lucky navigator who always finds his sky quite clear, and can set his course by the signs of unclouded heavenly bodies, and so is sure of the port to which his steering will take him.
IV. The Heart's Desire.
If the evening was one of those which seem longer than usual but still have far to go, it was once a custom in Millwall to find a pair of boots of which it could be claimed that it was time they were mended, and to carry the artful parcel around to Mr. Pascoe. His cobbler's shop was in a street that had the look of having retired from the hurry and press of London, aged, dispirited, and indifferent even to its defeat, and of waiting vacantly for what must come to elderly and shabby despondence. Each grey house in the street was distinguished but by its number and the ornament which showed between the muslin curtains of its parlour window. The home of the Jones's had a geranium, and so was different from one neighbour with a ship's model in gypsum, and from the other whose sign was a faded photograph askew in its frame. On warm evenings some of the women would be sitting on their doorsteps, watching with dull faces their children at play, as if experience had told them more than they wanted to know, but that they had nothing to say about it. Beyond this street there was emptiness. It ended, literally, on a blind wall. It was easy for a wayfarer to feel in that street that its life was caught. It was secluded from the main stream, and its children were a lively yet merely revolving eddy. They could not get out. When I first visited Mr. Pascoe, as there was no window ornament to distinguish his place from the others, and his number was missing, I made a mistake, and went next door. Through a hole drilled in that wrong door a length of cord was pendant, with a greasy knot at its end. Underneath the knot was chalked "Pull." I pulled. The door opened on a mass of enclosed night. From the street it was hard to see what was there, so I went inside. What was there might have been a cavern—narrow, obscure, and dangerous with dim obstructions. Some of the shadows were darker than others, because the cave ended, far-off, on a port-light, a small square of day framed in black. Empty space was luminous beyond that cave. Becoming used to the gloom I saw chains and cordage hanging from the unseen roof. What was faintly like the prow of a boat shaped near. Then out from the lumber and suggestions of things a gnome approached me. "Y' want ole Pascoe? Nex' dore, guv'nor!" At that moment, in the square of bright day at the end of the darkness, the apparition of a ship silently appeared, and was gone again before my surprise. That open space beyond was London River.
Next door, in a small room to which day and night were the same, Mr. Pascoe was always to be found bending over his hobbing foot, under a tiny yellow fan of gaslight which could be heard making a tenuous shrilling whenever the bootmaker looked up, and ceased riveting. When his head was bent over his task only the crown of a red and matured cricketing cap, which nodded in time to his hammer, was presented to you. When he paused to speak, and glanced up, he showed a face that the gas jet, with the aid of many secluded years, had tinctured with its own artificial hue, a face puckered through a long frowning intent on old boots. He wore an apron that had ragged gaps in it. He was a frail and dingy little man, and might never have had a mother, but could have been born of that dusty workroom, to which he had been a faithful son all his life. It was a murky interior shut in from the day, a litter of petty tools and nameless rubbish on a ruinous bench, a disorder of dilapidated boots, that mean gas jet, a smell of leather; and there old Pascoe's hammer defiantly and rapidly attacked its circumstances, driving home at times, and all unseen, more than those rivets. If he rose to rake over his bench for material or a tool, he went spryly, aided by a stick, but at every step his body heeled over because one leg was shorter than the other. Having found what he wanted he would wheel round, with a strange agility that was apparently a consequence of his deformity, continuing his discourse, and driving his points into the air with his hammer, and so hobble back, still talking; still talking through his funny cap, as his neighbours used to say of him. At times he convoluted aerial designs and free ideas with his hammer, spending it aloft on matters superior to boots. The boots were never noticed. Pascoe could revivify his dust. The glitter of his spectacles when he looked up might have been the sparkling of an ardent vitality suppressed in his little body.
The wall space of his room was stratified with shelves, where half-seen bottles and nondescript lumps were to be guessed at, like fossils embedded in shadow. They had never been moved, and they never would be. Hanging from a nail on one shelf was a framed lithograph of the ship Euterpe, off S. Catherine's Point, July 21, 1849. On the shelf below the picture was a row of books. I never saw Pascoe look at them, and they could have been like the bottles, retained by a careful man because of the notion that some day they would come in handy. Once, when waiting for Pascoe, who was out getting a little beer, I glanced at the volumes, and supposed they bore some relation to the picture of the ship; perhaps once they had been owned by that legendary brother of Pascoe's, a sailor, of whom I had had a misty apprehension. It would be difficult to say there had been a direct word about him. There were manuals on navigation, seamanship, and ship-building, all of them curiosities, in these later days, rather than expert guides. They were full of marginal notes, and were not so dusty as I had expected to find them. The rest of the books were of journeys in Central America and Mexico: Three Years in Guatemala; The Buried Cities of Yucatan; Scenes on the Mosquito Coast; A Voyage to Honduras. There was more of it, and of that sort. They were by authors long forgotten; but those books, too, looked as though they were often in use. Certainly they could not be classed with the old glue-pots and the lumber.
It was long after my first visit to Pascoe that he referred to those books. "Somebody told me," he said one evening, while offering me a share of his beer, "that you have been to the American tropics."
I told him I could say I had been, but little more. I said it was a very big world.
"Yes," he said, after a pause: "and what a world. Think of those buried cities in Yucatan—lost in the forest, temples and gods and everything. Men and women there, once upon a time, thinking they were a fine people, the only great people, with a king and princesses and priests who made out they knew the mysteries, and what God was up to. And there were processions of girls with fruit and flowers on feast-days, and soldiers in gold armour. All gone, even their big notions. Their god hasn't got even a name now. Have you ever read the Companions of Columbus?"
I was as surprised as though one of his dim bottles in the shadows had suddenly glowed before my eyes, become magical with moving opalescence. What right had old Pascoe to be staring like that to the land and romance of the Toltecs? I had been under the impression that he read nothing but the Bible and Progress and Poverty. There was a biography of Bradlaugh, too, which he would quote copiously, and his spectacles used fairly to scintillate over that, and his yellow face to acquire a new set of cunning and ironic puckers; for I believe he thought, when he quoted Bradlaugh—whose name was nearly all I knew of that famous man—that he was becoming extremely modern, and a little too strong for my conventional and sensitive mind. But here he was, telling of Incas, Aztecs, and Toltecs, of buried cities, of forgotten treasures, though mainly of the mind, of Montezuma, of the quetzal bird, and of the vanished splendour of nations that are now but a few weathered stones. It was the forlorn stones, lost in an uninhabited wilderness, to which he constantly returned. A brother of his, who had been there, perhaps had dropped a word once into Pascoe's ear while his accustomed weapon was uplifted over a dock-labourer's boot-heel, and this was what that word had done. Pascoe, with a sort of symbolic gesture, rose from his bobbing foot before me, tore the shoe from it, flung it contemptuously on the floor, and approached me with a flamboyant hammer.
And that evening I feared for a moment that Pascoe was spoiled for me. He had admitted me to a close view of some secret treasured charms of his memory, and believing that I was not uninterested, now, of course, he would be always displaying, for the ease of his soul, supposing we had a fellowship and a bond, his fascinating quetzals and Toltecs. Yet I never heard any more about them. There was another subject though, quite homely, seeing where we both lived, and equally absorbing for us both. He knew our local history, as far as our ships and house-flags were concerned, from John Company's fleet to the Macquarie. He knew, by reputation, many of our contemporary master mariners. He knew, and how he had learned it was as great a wonder as though he spoke Chinese, a fair measure of naval architecture. He could discuss ships' models as some men would Greek drama. He would enter into the comparative merits of rig suitable for small cruising craft with a particularity which, now and then, gave me a feeling almost akin to alarm; because in a man of Pascoe's years this fond insistence on the best furniture for one's own little ship went beyond fair interest, and became the day-dreaming of romantic and rebellious youth. At that point he was beyond my depth. I had forgotten long ago, though but half Pascoe's age, what my ship was to be like, when I got her at last. Knowing she would never be seen at her moorings, I had, in a manner of speaking, posted her as a missing ship.
One day I met at his door the barge-builder into whose cavernous loft I had stumbled on my first visit to Pascoe. He said it was a fine afternoon. He invited me in to inspect a figure-head he had purchased. "How's the old 'un?" he asked, jerking a thumb towards the bootmaker's. Then, with some amused winking and crafty tilting of his chin, he signed to me to follow him along his loft. He led me clean through the port-light of his cave, and down a length of steps outside to his yard on the foreshore of the Thames, where, among his barges hauled up for repairs, he paused by a formless shape covered by tarpaulins.
"I've seen a few things in the way of boats, but this 'ere's a—well, what do you make of it?" He pulled the tarpaulin back, and disclosed a vessel whose hull was nearing completion. I did not ask if it was Pascoe's work. It was such an amusing and pathetic surprise, that, with the barge-builder's leering face turned to me waiting for my guess, there was no need to answer. "He reckons," said the barge-builder, "that he can do a bit of cruising about the mouth of the Thames in that. 'Bout all she wants now is to have a mast fitted, and to keep the water out, and she'll do." He chuckled grimly. Her lines were crude, and she had been built up, you could see, as Pascoe came across timber that was anywhere near being possible. Her strakes were a patchwork of various kinds of wood, though when she was tarred their diversity would be hidden from all but the searching of the elements. It was astonishing that Pascoe had done so well. It was still more astonishing that he should think it would serve.
"I've given him a hand with it," remarked the barge-builder, "an' more advice than the old 'un 'ud take. But I dessay 'e could potter about with the dam' tub round about as far as Canvey, if 'e keeps it out of the wash of the steamers. He's been at this job two years now, and I shan't be sorry to see my yard shut of it. . . . Must humour the old boy, though. . . . Nigglin' job, mending boots, I reckon. If I mended boots, I'd 'ave to let orf steam summow. Or go on the booze."
I felt hurt that Pascoe had not taken me into his confidence, and that his ship, so far as I was concerned, did not exist. One Saturday evening, when I called, his room was in darkness. Striking a match, there was his apron shrouding his hobbing foot. This had never happened before, and I turned into the barge-builder's. The proprietor there faced me silently for a moment, treasuring a jest he was going to give me when I was sufficiently impatient for it. "Come to see whether your boots are done? Well, they ain't. Pascoe's gone. Christened his boat this morning, and pushed off. Gone for a trial trip. Gone down river."
"Good Lord," I said, or something of the sort.
"Yes," continued the barge-builder, luxuriating in it, "and I've often wondered what name he'd give her, and he done it this morning, in gold leaf. D'yer remember what she looked like? All right. Well, 'er name is the Heart's Desire, and her skipper will be back soon, if she don't fall apart too far off."
Her skipper was not back soon, nor that day. We had no news of him the next day. A few women were in his workshop, when I called, hunting about for footwear that should have been repaired and returned, but was not. "'Ere they are," cried one. "'Ere's young Bill's boots, and nothing done to 'em. The silly old fool. Why didn't 'e tell me 'e was going to sea? 'Ow's young Bill to go to school on Monday now?" The others found their boots, all urgently wanted, and all as they were when Pascoe got them. A commination began of light-minded cripples who took in young and innocent boots, promising them all things, and then treacherously abandoned them, to do God knew what; and so I left.
This became serious; for old Pascoe, with his Heart's Desire, had vanished, like his Toltecs. A week went by. The barge-builder, for whom this had now ceased to be a joke, was vastly troubled by the complete disappearance of his neighbour, and shook his head over it. Then a few lines in an evening paper, from a port on the Devon coast, looked promising, though what they wished to convey was not quite clear, for it was a humorous paragraph. But the evidence was strong enough for me, and on behalf of the barge-builder and a few others I went at once to that west-coast harbour.
It was late at night when I arrived, and bewildering with rain, total darkness, and an upheaval of cobbles in by-ways that wandered to no known purpose. But a guide presently brought me to a providential window, and quarters in the Turk's Head. In my room I could hear a continuous murmuring, no doubt from the saloon bar below, and occasional rounds of hearty merriment. That would be the place for news, and I went down to get it. An oil-lamp veiled in tobacco smoke was hanging from a beam of a sooty ceiling. A congregation of longshoremen, visible in the blue mist and smoky light chiefly because of their pink masks, was packed on benches round the walls. They laughed aloud again as I went in. They were regarding with indulgent interest and a little shy respect an elegant figure overlooking them, and posed negligently against the bar, on the other side of which rested the large bust of a laughing barmaid. She was as amused as the men. The figure turned to me as I entered, and stopped its discourse at once. It ran a hand over its white brow and curly hair with a gesture of mock despair. "Why, here comes another to share our Hearts Desire. We can't keep the beauty to ourselves."
It was young Hopkins, known to every reader of the Morning Despatch for his volatility and omniscience. It was certainly not his business to allow any place to keep its secrets to itself; indeed, his reputation including even a capacity for humour, the world was frequently delighted with more than the place itself knew even in secret. Other correspondents from London were also in the room. I saw them vaguely when Hopkins indicated their positions with a few graceful flourishes of his hand. They were lost in Hopkins's assurance of occupying superiority. They were looking on. "We all got here yesterday," explained Hopkins. "It's a fine story, not without its funny touches. And it has come jolly handy in a dull season when people want cheering up. We have found the Ancient Mariner. He was off voyaging again but his ship's magic was washed out by heavy weather. And while beer is more plentiful than news, we hope to keep London going with some wonders of the deep."
In the morning, before the correspondents had begun on the next instalment of their serial story, I saw Pascoe sitting up in a bed at another inn, his expenses an investment of the newspaper men. He was unsubdued. He was even exalted. He did not think it strange to see me there, though it was not difficult to guess that he had his doubts about the quality of the publicity he had attracted, and of the motive for the ardent attentions of his new and strange acquaintances from London. "Don't be hard on me," he begged, "for not telling you more in London. But you're so cautious and distrustful. I was going to tell you, but was uncertain what you'd say. Now I've started and you can't stop me. I've met a man here named Hopkins, who has given me some help and advice. As soon as my craft is repaired, I'm off again. It was unlucky to meet that sou'wester in July. But once out of home waters, I ought to be able to pick up the Portuguese trade wind off Finisterre, and then I'm good for the Caribbees. I'll do it. She should take no more than a fortnight to put right."
There was no need to argue with him. The Heart's Desire, a centre of attraction in the place, answered any doubt I had as to Pascoe's safety. But he was humoured. Hopkins humoured him, even openly encouraged him. The Heart's Desire was destined for a great adventure. The world was kept in anticipation of the second departure for this strange voyage to Guatemala. The Heart's Desire on the edge of a ship-repairer's yard, was tinkered, patched, refitted, made as right as she could be. The ship-repairer, the money for the work made certain for him, did what he was told, but made no comment, except to interrogate me curiously when I was about.