In Dickens's London/Chapter 12



To understand why the damp, mouldy, waterside life of the Thames should have so strongly appealed to Mr. Dickens, it is only necessary to follow in his footsteps, especially when the tide is out—and a mighty tide it is.

You think when you are crossing London Bridge to the Surrey side, your eye fixed on what you suppose is its wharf front—and we are dealing with that part of the Thames lying between Southwark Bridge and London Bridge—that all you have to do to reach the river bank is to walk along some street running at right angles to the Bridge, turn to the right, and so on down to the water's edge, where, from some pile of freight on an overloaded dock, you can study the river spread out before you.

Nothing of this is possible. The row of sullen warehouses, frowning from dull eyes under iron lids on the water traffic that sweeps past their doors, have neither wharfs nor docks. When the tide is high the cargoes are snatched from huge lighters moored close to their walls, swung through gaping doors opening on the several floors, and then whirled back on hand trucks into dark recesses. When the tide is out these great lighters go aground on a wide, continuous mud bank hugging the foundation bricks, where, until the repentant tide returns, they lie inert, powerless, and lopsided.

To find, therefore, a coign of vantage from which a sketch expressing in the slightest degree the whirl and rush of the river traffic could be made, was difficult. After entering various doors giving on the street, tramping over acres of ground floor which seemingly promised possible exits overlooking the river, only to be confronted by colossal stacks of packing-boxes holding cans of kerosene, crates of cheese, heaps of woodenware, breastworks of tea, salt, and coffee; I brought up at last against a brick wall with every iron shutter closed tight as a burial vault.

A gleam of light shining through a mere slit, a sort of forest opening between huge piles of merchandise, finally caught my eye, and with the help of a stevedore detailed by the manager, who carried my traps, I rounded, squared, and enfiladed the conglomerate mass representing the products of half the globe and emerged in triumph on a door-sill to which was fastened a landing plank about three feet wide.

Here I could sit, so the stevedore said, until the tide turned, which would be along about noon and maybe later, when I should have to go whether the tide was on time or not, "as it was Saturday, and everything was shut chuck-a-block on Saturday at twelve, with nothing doing any more until seven o'clock on Monday morning."

My experience has taught me that you can sometimes wheedle a janitor, influence a Bobby, and occasionally persuade a verger to let you out by a side door before service is over; but I have never yet been able to induce any native-born Englishman, no matter what the compensation or what his occupation, to work five minutes after twelve o'clock of a Saturday afternoon. Up to that hour, then, my knock-off-at-noon stevedore would take upon himself the care of my person, seeing that no bale of cotton, or sling, full of tea, or other dangerous package, swung sky-ward from the bowels of a lighter, came in contact with any portion of my anatomy.

Furthermore he would impart to me certain valuable data, he having lived around here all his life and knowing every turn of the river. That was—and he pointed across the river—Cannon Station with the railroad bridge running into it; farther up was Southwark Bridge, an old iron bridge that was so old and crumbly that they didn't "let anybody walk across it"—I could just see it through the arches of the big Bridge; and that boat letting off steam was the Margate boat, and if he didn't miss his guess it would be "as full as a tick" on its next trip, being Saturday; and that half-round thing sticking up into the sky over the edge of the railroad bridge was the dome of St. Paul's; and London Bridge, of course, was right over there to the left.

This last piece of valuable information was the most important of all, for there, lying before me, was the very stretch of the river where Gaffer plied his ghastly trade.

A rumbling behind me of closing shutters warned me of the fatal hour of noon.

"Time's up, sir," was all he said as he reached for the iron ring on the wide-open door. "I'll be late for the boat. Thank ye, sir. Come on Monday and don't forget to ask for me. Thank ye, sir, I'll smoke it to-morrow," and he was off.

Once outside, I wandered about the streets upon which the sudden chill of idleness had settled. Few people were to be seen and fewer trucks. I mounted the slope of the Bridge and leaned over the parapet, revelling for hours in the stir of the river. The sun had sunk in a dull mist and there was but little wind; the clouds of smoke rolling from the steamers kept abreast of their funnels, the black columns mounting straight up. Lights, large and small, like a swarm of fireflies, began to break out, speckling the great city. Night came on. In the gloom the outline of the larger masses on the opposite bank were merged into the slowly settling haze which fell like a drop-curtain, pricked here and there by pin-points of light. It was now Gaffer's hour—the hour when:

"A boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.

"The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognisable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waist-band, kept an eager look-out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a

P 104--In Dickens London.jpg

THE THAMES BETWEEN SOUTHWARK BRIDGE AND LONDON BRIDGE—Where Lizzie Hexam rowed her father's boat, "Gaffer seated in the stern"

sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boat-hook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a water-man; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in a cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or a river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze. The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight head-way against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as she watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.

"'Keep her out, Lizzie. Tide runs strong here. Keep her well afore the sweep of it.'

"Trusting to the girl's skill and making no use of the rudder, he eyed the coming tide with an absorbed attention. So the girl eyed him. But, it happened now, that a slant of light from the setting sun glanced into the bottom of the boat, and, touching a rotten stain there which bore some resemblance to the outline of a muffled human form, coloured it as though with diluted blood. This caught the girl's eye, and she shivered.

"'What ails you?' said the man, immediately aware of it, though so intent on the advancing waters; 'I see nothing afloat.'

"The red light was gone, the shudder was gone, and his gaze, which had come back to the boat for a moment, travelled away again.…

"Always watching his face, the girl instantly answered to the action in the sculling; presently the boat swung round, quivered as from a sudden jerk, and the upper half of the man was stretched out over the stern.

"The girl pulled the hood of a cloak she wore over her head and over her face, … the banks changed swiftly, and the deepening shadows and the kindling lights of London Bridge were passed, and the tiers of shipping lay on either hand.

"It was not until now that the upper half of the man came back into the boat. His arms were wet and dirty, and he washed them over the side. In his right hand he held something, and he washed that in the river too. It was money. He chinked it once, and he blew upon it once, and he spat upon it once,—'for luck,' he hoarsely said—before he put it in his pocket."