« AnteriorContinuar »
into other people's boats, forcing them up into the willows, or against the islands. Never slip along the shore, or into quiet backwaters; always select the more frequented parts, not because you want to go there, but to make your presence known, and go amongst the crowd; and if a few sculls get broken, it only proves how very inferior and how very clumsy other people are. If you see another boat coming down stream in the centre of the river with a broad space on either side for others to pass, at once head your own boat straight at her, and take possession of the way. Or, better still, never look ahead, but pull straight on, and let things happen as they may. Annoy everybody, and you are sure to be right, and to be respected; splash the ladies as you pass with a dexterous flip of the scull, and soak their summer costumes; it is capital sport, and they look so sulky-or is it contemptuous ?
There was no such thing as a skiff in which one could quietly paddle about, or gently make way-mile after mile-up the beautiful stream. The boating throng grew thicker, and my courage less and less, till I desperately resorted to the ferry-at all events, I could be rowed over in the ferry-boat, that would be something; I should be on the water, after a fashion -and the ferryman would know a good deal. The burly ferryman cared nothing at all about the river, and merely answered “Yes,” or “No;" he was full of the Derby and Sandown; didn't know about the fishing; supposed there were fish; didn't see 'em, nor eat 'em; want a punt? No. So he landed me, desolate and hopeless, on the opposite bank, and I began to understand how the souls felt after Charon
had got them over. They could not have been more unhappy than I was on the towing-path, as the ferryboat receded and left me watching the continuous succession of boats passing up and down the river.
By-and-by an immense black hulk came drifting round the bend-an empty barge-almost broadside across the stream, for the current at the curve naturally carried it out from the shore. This huge helpless monster occupied the whole river, and had no idea where it was going, for it had no fins or sweeps to guide its course, and the rudder could only induce it to submit itself lengthways to the stream after the lapse of some time. The fairway of the river was entirely taken up by this irresponsible Frankenstein of the Thames, which some one had started, but which now did as it liked. Some of the small craft got up into the willows and waited; some seemed to narrowly escape being crushed against a wall on the opposite bank. The bright white sails of a yacht shook and quivered as its steersman tried all he knew to coax his vessel an inch more into the wind out of the monster's path. In vain! He had to drop down the stream, and lose what it had taken him half an hour's skill to gain What a pleasing monster to meet in the narrow arches of a bridge ! The man in charge leaned on the tiller, and placidiy gazed at the wild efforts of some unskilful oarsmen to escape collision. In fact, the monster had charge of the man, and did as it liked with him.
Down the river they drifted together, Frankenstein swinging round and thrusting his blunt nose first this way and then that; down the river, blocking up the narrow passage by the eyot; stopping the traffic at the lock; out at last into the tidal stream, there to begin a fresh life of annoyance, and finally to endanger the good speed of many a fine threemaster and ocean steamer off the docks. The Thames barge knows no law. No judge, no jury, no Palace of Justice, no Chancery, no appeal to the Lords has any terror for the monster barge. It drifts by the Houses of Parliament with no more respect than it shows for the lodge of the lock-keeper. It drifts by Royal Windsor, and cares not. The guns of the Tower are of no account. There is nothing in the world so utterly free as this monster. • Often have I asked myself if the bargee at the tiller, now sucking at his short black pipe, now munching onions and cheese (the little onions he pitches on the lawns by the river side, there to take root and flourish)—if this amiable man has any notion of his own incomparable position. Just some inkling of the irony of the situation must, I fancy, now and then dimly dawn within his grimy brow. To see all these gentlemen shoved on one side; to be lying in the way of a splendid Australian clipper; to stop an incoming vessel, impatient for her berth; to swing, and sway, and roll as he goes; to bump the big ships, and force the little ones aside; to slip, and slide, and glide with the tide, ripples dancing under the prow, and be master of the world-famed Thames from source to mouth, is not this a joy for ever? Liberty is beyond price ; now no one is really free unless he can crush his neighbour's interest underfoot, like a horse-roller going over a daisy. Bargee is free, and the ashes of his pipe are worth a king's ransom.
Imagine a great van loaded at the East-end of London with the heaviest merchandise, with bags of iron nails, shot, leaden sheets in rolls, and pig iron; imagine four strong horses—dray-horsesharnessed thereto. Then let the waggoner mount behind in a seat comfortably contrived for him facing the rear, and settle himself down happily among his sacks, light his pipe, and fold his hands untroubled with any worry of reins. Away they go through the crowded city, by the Bank of England, and across into Cheapside, cabs darting this way, carriages that, omnibuses forced up into side-streets, foot traffic uspended till the monster has passed; up Fleetstreet, clearing the road in front of them-right through the stream of lawyers always rushing to and fro the Temple and the New Law Courts, along the Strand, and finally in triumph into Rotten Row at five o'clock on a June afternoon. See how they scatter! see how they run! The Row is swept clear from end to end—beauty, fashion, rank,—what are such trifles of an hour ? The monster vans grind them all to powder. What such a waggoner might do on land, bargee does on the river.
Of olden time the silver Thames was the chosen mode of travel of Royalty-the highest in the land were rowed from palace to city, or city to palace, between its sunlit banks. Noblemen had their special oarsmen, and were in like manner conveyed, and could any other mode of journeying be equally pleasant? The coal-barge has bumped them all out
of the way.
No man dares send forth the commonest cart unless in proper charge, and if the horse is not under control a fine is promptly administered. The coalbarge rolls and turns and drifts as chance and the varying current please. How huge must be the rent in the meshes of the law to let so large a fish go through! But in truth there is no law about it, and to this day no man can confidently affirm that he knows to whom the river belongs. These curious anomalies are part and parcel of our political system, and as I watched the black monster slowly go by with the stream it occurred to me that grimy bargee, with his short pipe and his onions, was really the guardian of the British Constitution.
Hardly had he gone past than a loud Pant ! pant! pant! began some way down the river; it came from a tug, whose short puffs of steam produced a giant echo against the walls and quays and houses on the bank. These angry pants sounded high above the splash of oars and laughter, and the chorus of singers in a boat; they conquered all other sounds and noises, and domineered the place. It was impossible to shut the ears to them, or to persuade the mind not to heed. The swallows dipped their breasts ; how gracefully they drank on the wing! Pant! pant! pant! The sunlight gleamed on the wake of a four-oar. Pant! pant! pant! The soft wind blew among the trees and over the hawthorn hedge. Pant! pant! pant! Neither the eye nor ear could attend to ́aught but this hideous uproar. The tug was weak, the stream strong, the barges behind heavy, broad, and deeply laden, so that each puff