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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


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