Tales of the Thames/A Ragged Intruder

Tales of the Thames  (1895)  by Max Pemberton
A Ragged Intruder
From English Illustrated, Vol 13, 1895, pp. 489-496.

A loafer on the shore gives the narrator strangely authoritative advice. And this knowledge of sculling by a shabby tramp is not the only intriguing mystery about him.


AT that spot below Reading where the Kennet pours its comparatively crystal waters into the main stream of the Thames, there is to be seen by all that look for it a very picturesque, if irritatingly new, boat-house. It is here that the youth of Reading hires its skiffs when contemplating an assault upon the silence of the early night; here that many an old river-man chooses to mark time upon the journey downwards from his Mecca at Oxford. And here it was that, some two years ago, I found the racing-shell which brought me indirectly to knowledge of the ragged intruder.

She was an old ship, wheezy in the seams and long unused. A plate upon her bow spoke of Swaddle as her maker, but the date of her birth must have been far back in history. I could see that the slide had been added by some later-day restorer, and that the swivel rowlocks were the work of a modern who had no abiding respect for antiquity. Her owner was even prepared to doubt that she would float, but I entreated him no longer to hide her light beneath the piles of shavings which then covered her, and he consented at last that I should carry her to the water. He assured me at the same time that he washed his hands of all responsibility; and with a parting prayer of thanks that he washed them of anything at all, I launched the "racer" and put her head down stream.

If you have been rowing for any length of time in a heavy Thames tub your sensations on finding yourself again in a ship that has no keel are not to be described. The way she leaps at your touch, the delightful ease with which you cover the water, are in themselves an experience to be remembered. Against this there must always be set the wonder of the untutored crowd which persists in regarding a racing-boat as the peculiar property of the aquatic acrobat. I recollect well as I launched my crazy craft on that particular evening the exhortations of certain small boys who cried to other small boys that I was about to begin. As for the boat-builder himself, he stood upon his hard shaking his head wistfully, and when I pulled his shell round into the main stream his attitude was unchanged, and the head of him was still wagging. He believed that he was bidding a last long farewell to the friend of his youth, and of his father's youth before him. He had staked his reputation upon the immediate sinking of the ship; he knew that I must come back to him alone.

Needless to say, I also had my doubts about the possibilities of the "discovery." She took in water in an alarming way during the first half-mile of the journey to Sonning, and I had to beg the assistance of a man upon the bank while I baled her out and started anew. The second venture was more prosperous, since her timbers began to swell; and notwithstanding an aggravating tendency to veer to port, she continued to behave herself with a propriety which was as unexpected as it was pleasant. It may have been that she welcomed my confidence, and was anxious to repay; it may have been that I was ready to take a large view of her powers. Certain it is, however, that I made the Parade in a time which astonished me, and passed through the lock, not only with the "discovery" afloat, but in a state of health which seemed to mark the beginning of a new and entirely unlooked-for career.

Until this point the voyage had been entirely enjoyable. The contrast between the heaviness of a skiff and the ease of this racing-shell was an extreme one, leading me to ask myself if men would not do well to employ a lighter craft for much of their common river work. Nor had I any reason to change my opinion when below the lock. It is true that my right arm ached with the difficulty of keeping the "discovery's" head to starboard; it is true that she still took in enough water to cool my heels; but her other gifts were so many that I forgave her readily, and luxuriated in her speed and in the beauties of the early autumn evening. All the woods about Sonning were then reddening with their summer fullness; the main river was quite deserted and rippling over with merry waves. I could hear the note of birds and the patter of rats in the backwaters. The evening air was fresh almost to chilliness, as the air of September may be; a deep red glow of the sun fell upon the stream, and lighted even the glades of the islands above Ship lake. Ever and anon there came upon the freshening breeze the sound of the church-bells ringing in Wargrave—the shrill scream of a launch's whistle as it churned onwards to Henley. But no boat did I meet, nor any man upon the bank, until the lock-gates came to my view. Then, quite suddenly, I fell upon the ragged intruder, and he began to follow me.

The man was sitting upon the bank when I passed him, wearing clothes that were odd enough to be remarkable. While there was a certain refinement of face and feature, and his long black beard was neat and apparently well combed, I could see, as I rowed by, that his short black coat was worn and battered, and that his shoes, which dangled over the stream's bank, lacked both laces and sound soles. But it occurred to me as curious that his flannel trousers should be scrupulously white, and that his straw hat should seem to have come but yesterday out of a shop. He was, indeed, a man of contrasts, for while he carried a cane with a silver head to it in his hand, there was stuck in his mouth a reminiscence of a black cutty pipe, such a pipe as navvies smoke. This he was smoking furiously when I came up with him; but no sooner did he see me than he sprang to his feet, and with almost a boyish cry of delight began to run after me.

"Halloa!" cried he, speaking in the voice of a civilised man. "You 're out again, are you?—and at the old tricks, I see. Why the devil can't you pull that right scull home?"

The surprise of the thing was so great that I stopped sculling instantly, and began to parley with him.

"What 's that you say?" I shouted.

"That you 're clipping your right," said he. "I told you so last night. Why can't you pull it through, and keep the ship straight?"

"I 'm much obliged for your advice, said I, "but I wasn't out here last night.

"You weren't? " he replied. "Well, it was some chap that did the same thing. Go on again, and I 'll look after you."

"But I 'd rather you didn't. I 'm only out for a breather."

"Never mind that. You do what I tell you. Don't mind me. I 'll run the whole neighbourhood for a sovereign. I 'm going Sonning way. Pull on again, and let's see what you can do."

The impudence of this request held me for a moment speechless. That a pure tramp—for the man's appearance led me to the belief that he was nothing more—should know anything of sculling was in itself not a little extraordinary; but that he should add to this knowledge the use of certain terms commonly heard upon the banks of the Isis or the Cam was to be accounted for only by the supposition that his life had been a tragedy.

"Come," said I, resting on my sculls in spite of his exhortation, "what do you know about rowing?"

"Enough to see that you 're not much good," he replied, but without any anger.

"I can dispense with your advice, anyway," said I, momentarily nettled at his reply.

"I think not," said he quite coolly, "not from here to Sonning, at any rate. You made a pretty exhibition of yourself coming down. It 's time someone taught you a thing or two. I mean to take you in hand myself, so you 'd better get on. You 'll never make a sculler until you get that right shoulder down. I 've seen hundreds spoilt in the same way."

I listened to the harangue with an astonishment which I could not express. The man's calmness and apparent earnestness were things to see. He had the manner of one accustomed to command; the fact that he wore rags upon his back did not rob him of his dignity. Beyond this he was a fine man, standing the whole of six feet in his tattered shoes, and possessed of a chest which would have made the fortune of a touting gymnast. It occurred to me at once that it would not be wise to get upon the bank, and argue the matter with him there. But one thing remained to do—I must scull on and put up with the annoyance. It might be that I could shake him off by sheer pace if the "discovery" would permit. In any case, a little shouting would not hurt me, and might give him pleasure, which he was welcome to.

With this intention, I oiled the slide of the crazy ship, and got her well under the bank to cheat the stream. She gave many groans when I dug my heels against the stretcher, but answered with surprising readiness to my touch. For the first hundred yards I must have put in nearly thirty-six strokes a minute, and thought surely to be quit of the tramp—a delusion which he dispelled quickly enough when he began to bawl in a voice that have been heard away at the inn.

"There you are," cried he, "at the old trick again! Let the right thumb touch the chest. Row the scull out of the water, man—don't force it like that! You 've got a shoulder like a camel's hump. Keep it down, can't you? Keep that shoulder down and bring the sculls out clean. You 'll never make a sculler if you don't sit up to it. Good Lord, your back 's like a sack of meal! Reach out, man, and don't bucket. This isn't Henley Regatta by a long way."

With such a running commentary did he follow my efforts for at least a quarter of a mile. Fast as I had gone, and well as the wheezy ship carried me, he kept pace with her apparently without an effort; indeed when at last I stopped suddenly, breathless and not a little angry that he had thus spoilt my evening, he sat down upon the stream's bank with a fine smile upon his face and his reminiscence of a pipe still in his hand.

"Look, now," said he, "this won't do at all: you 're sculling like a wild Chinaman. I 've seen boys of twelve that could do better. What 's the matter with you I can't think."

"I wish you wouldn't try," said I.

"You 're losing your temper," exclaimed he shortly, "which won't mend things; and you 're rowing too quick a stroke, which is just as bad."

"Oh, go to the deuce!" cried I; and with that I plunged my sculls in again and sent the "discovery" flying up stream. It did not seem possible to me that he would venture further after so plain an intimation that he was not wanted; but I had yet to learn the depth and breadth of his voice again, now persuasive, now condemnatory, now in expostulation. And at this I stopped once more and reasoned with him for the last time.

"Look here," said I; "we 've had about enough of this. I came out here to amuse myself, and I don't want your coaching. Will you go away for a shilling?"

To my surprise, the offer of money silenced him as no other word had done.

"You insult me," said he; "there was no need to do that."

I was sorry for the thing almost as soon as I had said it. The way he buttoned his ragged coat around him, and turned away from the bank, spoke of a sensitiveness not to be looked for in one so oddly garbed and apparently so poor. I would have given a sovereign for my words to have remained unspoken, and clumsily I offered him an apology. Hut he only shook his head. Evidently he would have no more to say to me.

We were at this time about three hundred yards from the lock at Sonning. The evening was growing late, dusk giving wav to the dark of a summer's night. Many skiffs passed me on their way to Wargrave or Henley: the Oxford launch rushed by with a great wave of foam surging upon the banks, and the strains of a string band struggling tor mastery with the hum of the screw. I could hear the tinkle of a banjo in the grounds of the White Hart; could see the flash of women's dresses and the glow of lamps in the island garden. At any other time I should have been anxious to press on and get the "discovery" housed while some show of twilight remained, but now I found myself possessed of a new and perhaps not altogether inexplicable interest in the ragged man who had followed me. Whence came he? Whither was he going? How was it that he treated an offer of money with scorn? Such an odd admixture of speech and dress I had never come across, and I, who had wished him anywhere ten minutes before, was now sorry that he shunned my acquaintance.

That he meant to shun it I could have no doubt. He had turned away from me at once at the offer of money. I saw him lighting his stump of a pipe behind one of the willows, and as I sculled on slowly, the glow of light above the bowl showed me exactly where he was. It was evident that he, too, was making for Sonning, though at a leisurely pace. I imagined even that he was brooding over his insult, and determined that I would wait for him at the bridge and mend matters so far as I could. It might even be that he would tell me his story—and for his story I began to hunger curiously. In my desire to learn it I left the "discovery" against the lawn of the hotel and hurried over the bridge to meet him. He was lounging up the bank, his arms swinging, his straw hat upon the back of his head. I saw that he wished to pass me without a word, but I blocked the path as he came up, and began my excuses.

"I was rude to you just now," said I; "that comes of a quick temper. I hope you 've forgotten it."

Strange as it may seem, no effort was needed to talk to him like this. Directly I was near to him I saw that he had the manner and the face of a refined man. His clothes only were ragged—and yet I could not fail to remember that when first he hailed me by Shiplake he had spoken like a true tout of the roadside. Now, however, he heard my apologies out, and then answered me with a shrug of the shoulders.

"It was not the word of a gentleman," said he, "but a man in my position hears it often. It 's something that you should be here to mention it."

"Well, let 's talk no more about it. Come down to the lawn of the hotel and drink shandy-gaff."

He shook his head sadly, and began to fill his pipe again.

"That 's no place for me," said he. "It might have been three years ago—but now," and he pulled at his coat to show me the rags in it.

"If you don't care to see anyone," said I "we can sit at one of the tables in the garden. It 's quite dark now."

For a moment he hesitated. Then, knocking out the tobacco he had just put into his pipe, he said—

"Well, so be it: but it 's for a quarter of an hour only. I 've business to do before I go to bed to-night."

Two minutes later I was sitting with him at one of the iron tables on the lawn of the hotel. A fence of rose-bushes hid us from the men and women passing in and out of the busy house; and when he had lighted the cigar that I gave him and had consented to my ordering him a whisky-and-soda, he appeared willing to talk.

"You know a good deal about rowing?" said I, hoping to learn something of his past.

"I used to," he replied unconcernedly.

"Of course you have done Henley?"

"I was in the Exeter eight for the two Grand Challenges."

"Was that long ago?"

"It must be twenty years."

"Have you rowed at all since you left the 'Varsity?"

"How did you know I was a 'Varsity man?"

"Why, you have just said that you were at Exeter."

"Oh, yes! of course, that is so."

This answer of his struck me as not a little curious. He looked at me in a strange way, fixing his eyes upon mine and staring determinedly. It was only after a strained pause that he spoke again.

"Do you live here?" he asked suddenly.

"I am staying over at Earleigh," said I.

"You don't happen to know Bedford?"

"I was there once for a couple of hours."

"Well, that's a good thing," he exclaimed with a sigh of content. "I was vicar of a church in Bedford."


"Why not? Am I the only man that ever lost his money?"

"Certainly not; but——"

"Oh, yes; but you 're surprised, eh? Well, don't tell me that you 're sorry. I can stand anything but that."

"You must hear it often."

"About three times a day. Sympathy 's a cheap article in my market."

It was my turn now to be silent. Clearly, he did not mean to tell me more, and had begun to smoke sullenly. At last, however, I gave him a tu quoque.

"Are you staying at Sonning?" I asked.

He looked up quickly.

"What 's that to you?" he cried.

"Nothing at all. I was wondering if you knew the place."

"Know it! I know every stone of it. My father's house lies three hundred yards from this inn. I was born here—I hope to die here."

The momentary outburst seemed to relieve him. He leant back in his chair and smoked with an air of a man enjoying a new experience. And, observing that I had no courage to put another question to him, he continued presently—

"Yes, I know Sonning, my friend, know every stone of it. There 's not a room in the village which I couldn't tell a tale about—not a room nor a man."

"Would they be interesting tales, now?"

"That depends upon what you mean by interesting."

"I mean that you would find no tragedies here."

He laughed scornfully.

"Tragedies—no tragedies—My God! it is a tragedy that brings me to Sonning now. I am a tragedy myself. Look at my coat—look at my trousers—then talk about tragedies."

I did not offer him my sympathy, since he had asked that I should not, but tried to induce him to speak of his business.

"Let us hope your visit here will mend matters," said I.

"Ah, let's hope that it will," cried he; "though I have my doubts. If I were not such a poor devil of a pauper, I would find listeners quick enough. But they laugh at my story now—laugh to my face."

"Is it such a strange story, then?"

"Strange? Yes, I could call it that. It 's the story of a man with two wives——"

"Both living?"

"Exactly, though one is buried in the churchyard there."

He said it quite unconcernedly, and not with the air of a man who wished to trifle with his words. Nor when I laughed in spite of myself did he betray any annoyance.

"You laugh, of course," he continued quietly, "but hear me out—I say the woman is buried in that churchyard; I should say that the coffin which is supposed to contain her remains is buried there. That coffin was lowered into the ground with nothing in it but a lump of lead."

"And the woman?"

"Is living at Cadiz on an allowance of two pounds a week. The man who buried her was married last year for the second time at the parish church in Reading. He now resides at the Weir-Gate House, half a mile up the Earleigh Road. I am going there to-night to tell him that I know his story. To-morrow I shall be no longer poor, or he will be in the hands of the police."

"Isn't that rather a dangerous game?"

"Dangerous—pshaw! what does that matter to me? Have I anything to lose? Could I well be worse off than I am—wanting bread and water and a roof to my head. Am I the sort of man that should think of danger?"

"But he might give you in charge."

"Exactly. He might spit at the moon at the same time; but he 'll do neither, Sir. I'm convinced of it. He 's too much at stake. And he 's a man of means. It 's not the truth that you give in charge, but lies. I wish you good evening, Sir."

With this word he rose suddenly from his chair, and turning upon his heel, he strode out of the garden at a rapid pace. So sudden was his going, so abrupt the way in which he took leave of me, that he was through the gate before I could utter the appeal which was on my lips: and when I came up to it he had already disappeared in the darkness of the road. Strange as our first meeting had been. this farewell was yet more strange. What to make of his story I knew no more than the dead. He did not appear to be a man who would contrive so gruesome a fiction. He could have no possible object in lying to me. He had not asked for money, nor accepted readily the slight hospitality I had offered him. Nevertheless, he had not hesitated to stamp himself as a black-mailer, and was gone now, by his own confession, to practise his profession.

To say that I believed the truth of his wondrous story would be absurd; yet had I been asked to say what part appeared to me to be false I could have given no answer. He had told it in so few words, had refrained so carefully from any garnish of speech, that my first impression was one of blank amazement; and to this there succeeded a restless curiosity to know what would be the outcome of his visit to the Weir-Gate House. It might be, I thought, that he would be given in charge upon the spot; it might be, in the improbable contingency of the whole of his story being true, that he would get the money he demanded. At any rate, the problem was interesting; and, as it was then only nine o'clock, I determined to walk to the place and to learn if possible something more of it.

This desire carried me quickly along the Reading Road, and through the pretty village of Sonning. I could see nothing of the ragged man as I went; nor had I any company but that of the bats and of the dust. When I came up to the Weir-Gate House at last. I found it to be a squat stone building, fronted by a patch of commonplace garden, to which a small white gate gave across. There was no light visible in the house, but the sound of voices was to be heard from the lawn: and as I went to pass the gate, I beheld a white-haired old man leaning over the palings. He had a pipe in his mouth, and at the sight of him I must have stopped suddenly, and betrayed unmistakably my desire to speak.

"Good evening," said he, very civilly, "are you looking for the Weir-Gate House?"

"Well, said I, observing as I spoke that he wore the coat and collar of a churchman, "hardly that; I was looking for a ragged man who left me at the White Hart fifteen minutes ago."

"A tall man with a black beard and a straw hat?"

"That would be the best description of him possible."

"Who told you a story of an empty coffin in Sonning Church?"

"Yes; he told me the story."

"Poor fellow, he tells it to everyone he meets."

"Then it is a bundle of lies?"

"Indeed no; it is the substantial truth. There is such a grave, and such a coffin was brought from Cadiz; but all that is thirty years ago. The man who was the subject of the story died in this house in the year eighteen hundred and seventy."

The explanation was so amazing that I could not help but laugh.

"My tramp, then, is cracked?" said I.

"Exactly; he is a harmless maniac. Three years ago be was the vicar of a little church in Bedford. He is now tormented with the idea that he has lost all his money. I fear that his friends must soon put him under restraint, if only to rid me of the annoyance which his knowledge of that old story subjects me to. But it is a very sad case."

I agreed with him, and after a few necessary words, in which, as country people will, he discussed the state of his crops and the possibilities of good weather, I returned to the lock and to the "discovery." The later night was now exceedingly beautiful, the moon being at the full, and the whole of the woods plainly to be seen in the flood of light. But as I rowed back to the Kennet, these things did not interest me. I was thinking of the ragged intruder, and of the strange mystery which clung about the empty coffin in Sonning Churchyard.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.