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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,

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Online LibraryH.M. TomlinsonLondon River → online text (page 3 of 11)