The river in its Sunday garb.—Dress on the river.—A chance for the men.—Absence of taste in Harris.—George’s blazer.—A day with the fashion-plate young lady.—Mrs. Thomas’s tomb.—The man who loves not graves and coffins and skulls.—Harris mad.—His views on George and Banks and lemonade.—He performs tricks.
It was while passing through Moulsey Lock that Harris told me about his maze experience. It took us some time to pass through, as we were the only boat, and it is a big lock. I don’t think I ever remember to have seen Moulsey Lock, before, with only one boat in it. It is, I suppose, Boulter’s not even excepted, the busiest lock on the river.
I have stood and watched it, sometimes, when you could not see any water at all, but only a brilliant tangle of bright blazers, and gay caps, and saucy hats, and many-coloured parasols, and silken rugs, and cloaks, and streaming ribbons, and dainty whites; when looking down into the lock from the quay, you might fancy it was a huge box into which flowers of every hue and shade had been thrown pell-mell, and lay piled up in a rainbow heap, that covered every corner.
On a fine Sunday it presents this appearance nearly all day long, while, up the stream, and down the stream, lie, waiting their turn, outside the gates, long lines of still more boats; and boats are drawing near and passing away, so that the sunny river, from the Palace up to Hampton Church, is dotted and decked with yellow, and blue, and orange, and white, and red, and pink. All the inhabitants of Hampton and Moulsey dress themselves up in boating costume, and come and mouch round the lock with their dogs, and flirt, and smoke, and watch the boats; and, altogether, what with the caps and jackets of the men, the pretty coloured dresses of the women, the excited dogs, the moving boats, the white sails, the pleasant landscape, and the sparkling water, it is one of the gayest sights I know of near this dull old London town.
The river affords a good opportunity for dress. For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me. I always like a little red in my things—red and black. You know my hair is a sort of golden brown, rather a pretty shade I’ve been told, and a dark red matches it beautifully; and then I always think a light-blue necktie goes so well with it, and a pair of those Russian-leather shoes and a red silk handkerchief round the waist—a handkerchief looks so much better than a belt.
Harris always keeps to shades or mixtures of orange or yellow, but I don’t think he is at all wise in this. His complexion is too dark for yellows. Yellows don’t suit him: there can be no question about it. I want him to take to blue as a background, with white or cream for relief; but, there! the less taste a person has in dress, the more obstinate he always seems to be. It is a great pity, because he will never be a success as it is, while there are one or two colours in which he might not really look so bad, with his hat on.
George has bought some new things for this trip, and I’m rather vexed about them. The blazer is loud. I should not like George to know that I thought so, but there really is no other word for it. He brought it home and showed it to us on Thursday evening. We asked him what colour he called it, and he said he didn’t know. He didn’t think there was a name for the colour. The man had told him it was an Oriental design. George put it on, and asked us what we thought of it. Harris said that, as an object to hang over a flower-bed in early spring to frighten the birds away, he should respect it; but that, considered as an article of dress for any human being, except a Margate nigger, it made him ill. George got quite huffy; but, as Harris said, if he didn’t want his opinion, why did he ask for it?
What troubles Harris and myself, with regard to it, is that we are afraid it will attract attention to the boat.
They were both beautifully got up—all lace and silky stuff, and flowers, and ribbons, and dainty shoes, and light gloves. But they were dressed for a photographic studio, not for a river picnic. They were the “boating costumes” of a French fashion-plate. It was ridiculous, fooling about in them anywhere near real earth, air, and water.
The first thing was that they thought the boat was not clean. We dusted all the seats for them, and then assured them that it was, but they didn’t believe us. One of them rubbed the cushion with the forefinger of her glove, and showed the result to the other, and they both sighed, and sat down, with the air of early Christian martyrs trying to make themselves comfortable up against the stake. You are liable to occasionally splash a little when sculling, and it appeared that a drop of water ruined those costumes. The mark never came out, and a stain was left on the dress for ever.
I was stroke. I did my best. I feathered some two feet high, and I paused at the end of each stroke to let the blades drip before returning them, and I picked out a smooth bit of water to drop them into again each time. (Bow said, after a while, that he did not feel himself a sufficiently accomplished oarsman to pull with me, but that he would sit still, if I would allow him, and study my stroke. He said it interested him.) But, notwithstanding all this, and try as I would, I could not help an occasional flicker of water from going over those dresses.
The girls did not complain, but they huddled up close together, and set their lips firm, and every time a drop touched them, they visibly shrank and shuddered. It was a noble sight to see them suffering thus in silence, but it unnerved me altogether. I am too sensitive. I got wild and fitful in my rowing, and splashed more and more, the harder I tried not to.
I gave it up at last; I said I’d row bow. Bow thought the arrangement would be better too, and we changed places. The ladies gave an involuntary sigh of relief when they saw me go, and quite brightened up for a moment. Poor girls! they had better have put up with me. The man they had got now was a jolly, light-hearted, thick-headed sort of a chap, with about as much sensitiveness in him as there might be in a Newfoundland puppy. You might look daggers at him for an hour and he would not notice it, and it would not trouble him if he did. He set a good, rollicking, dashing stroke that sent the spray playing all over the boat like a fountain, and made the whole crowd sit up straight in no time. When he spread more than pint of water over one of those dresses, he would give a pleasant little laugh, and say:
“I beg your pardon, I’m sure;” and offer them his handkerchief to wipe it off with.
“Oh, it’s of no consequence,” the poor girls would murmur in reply, and covertly draw rugs and coats over themselves, and try and protect themselves with their lace parasols.
At lunch they had a very bad time of it. People wanted them to sit on the grass, and the grass was dusty; and the tree-trunks, against which they were invited to lean, did not appear to have been brushed for weeks; so they spread their handkerchiefs on the ground and sat on those, bolt upright. Somebody, in walking about with a plate of beef-steak pie, tripped up over a root, and sent the pie flying. None of it went over them, fortunately, but the accident suggested a fresh danger to them, and agitated them; and, whenever anybody moved about, after that, with anything in his hand that could fall and make a mess, they watched that person with growing anxiety until he sat down again.
“Now then, you girls,” said our friend Bow to them, cheerily, after it was all over, “come along, you’ve got to wash up!”
They didn’t understand him at first. When they grasped the idea, they said they feared they did not know how to wash up.
“Oh, I’ll soon show you,” he cried; “it’s rare fun! You lie down on your—I mean you lean over the bank, you know, and sloush the things about in the water.”
The elder sister said that she was afraid that they hadn’t got on dresses suited to the work.
“Oh, they’ll be all right,” said he light-heartedly; “tuck ’em up.”
And he made them do it, too. He told them that that sort of thing was half the fun of a picnic. They said it was very interesting.
Now I come to think it over, was that young man as dense-headed as we thought? or was he—no, impossible! there was such a simple, child-like expression about him!
Harris wanted to get out at Hampton Church, to go and see Mrs. Thomas’s tomb.
“Who is Mrs. Thomas?” I asked.
“How should I know?” replied Harris. “She’s a lady that’s got a funny tomb, and I want to see it.”
I objected. I don’t know whether it is that I am built wrong, but I never did seem to hanker after tombstones myself. I know that the proper thing to do, when you get to a village or town, is to rush off to the churchyard, and enjoy the graves; but it is a recreation that I always deny myself. I take no interest in creeping round dim and chilly churches behind wheezy old men, and reading epitaphs. Not even the sight of a bit of cracked brass let into a stone affords me what I call real happiness.
I shock respectable sextons by the imperturbability I am able to assume before exciting inscriptions, and by my lack of enthusiasm for the local family history, while my ill-concealed anxiety to get outside wounds their feelings.
One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene—the grey old church with its clustering ivy and its quaint carved wooden porch, the white lane winding down the hill between tall rows of elms, the thatched-roof cottages peeping above their trim-kept hedges, the silver river in the hollow, the wooded hills beyond!
It was a lovely landscape. It was idyllic, poetical, and it inspired me. I felt good and noble. I felt I didn’t want to be sinful and wicked any more. I would come and live here, and never do any more wrong, and lead a blameless, beautiful life, and have silver hair when I got old, and all that sort of thing.
In that moment I forgave all my friends and relations for their wickedness and cussedness, and I blessed them. They did not know that I blessed them. They went their abandoned way all unconscious of what I, far away in that peaceful village, was doing for them; but I did it, and I wished that I could let them know that I had done it, because I wanted to make them happy. I was going on thinking away all these grand, tender thoughts, when my reverie was broken in upon by a shrill piping voice crying out:
“All right, sur, I’m a-coming, I’m a-coming. It’s all right, sur; don’t you be in a hurry.”
I looked up, and saw an old bald-headed man hobbling across the churchyard towards me, carrying a huge bunch of keys in his hand that shook and jingled at every step.
I motioned him away with silent dignity, but he still advanced, screeching out the while:
“I’m a-coming, sur, I’m a-coming. I’m a little lame. I ain’t as spry as I used to be. This way, sur.”
“Go away, you miserable old man,” I said.
“I’ve come as soon as I could, sur,” he replied. “My missis never see you till just this minute. You follow me, sur.”
“Go away,” I repeated; “leave me before I get over the wall, and slay you.”
He seemed surprised.
“Don’t you want to see the tombs?” he said.
“No,” I answered, “I don’t. I want to stop here, leaning up against this gritty old wall. Go away, and don’t disturb me. I am chock full of beautiful and noble thoughts, and I want to stop like it, because it feels nice and good. Don’t you come fooling about, making me mad, chivying away all my better feelings with this silly tombstone nonsense of yours. Go away, and get somebody to bury you cheap, and I’ll pay half the expense.”
He was bewildered for a moment. He rubbed his eyes, and looked hard at me. I seemed human enough on the outside: he couldn’t make it out.
“Yuise a stranger in these parts? You don’t live here?”
“Well then,” he said, “you want to see the tombs—graves—folks been buried, you know—coffins!”
“You are an untruther,” I replied, getting roused; “I do not want to see tombs—not your tombs. Why should I? We have graves of our own, our family has. Why my uncle Podger has a tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery, that is the pride of all that country-side; and my grandfather’s vault at Bow is capable of accommodating eight visitors, while my great-aunt Susan has a brick grave in Finchley Churchyard, with a headstone with a coffee-pot sort of thing in bas-relief upon it, and a six-inch best white stone coping all the way round, that cost pounds. When I want graves, it is to those places that I go and revel. I do not want other folk’s. When you yourself are buried, I will come and see yours. That is all I can do for you.”
He burst into tears. He said that one of the tombs had a bit of stone upon the top of it that had been said by some to be probably part of the remains of the figure of a man, and that another had some words, carved upon it, that nobody had ever been able to decipher.
I still remained obdurate, and, in broken-hearted tones, he said:
“Well, won’t you come and see the memorial window?”
I would not even see that, so he fired his last shot. He drew near, and whispered hoarsely:
“I’ve got a couple of skulls down in the crypt,” he said; “come and see those. Oh, do come and see the skulls! You are a young man out for a holiday, and you want to enjoy yourself. Come and see the skulls!”
Then I turned and fled, and as I sped I heard him calling to me:
“Oh, come and see the skulls; come back and see the skulls!”
Harris, however, revels in tombs, and graves, and epitaphs, and monumental inscriptions, and the thought of not seeing Mrs. Thomas’s grave made him crazy. He said he had looked forward to seeing Mrs. Thomas’s grave from the first moment that the trip was proposed—said he wouldn’t have joined if it hadn’t been for the idea of seeing Mrs. Thomas’s tomb.
I reminded him of George, and how we had to get the boat up to Shepperton by five o’clock to meet him, and then he went for George. Why was George to fool about all day, and leave us to lug this lumbering old top-heavy barge up and down the river by ourselves to meet him? Why couldn’t George come and do some work? Why couldn’t he have got the day off, and come down with us? Bank be blowed! What good was he at the bank?
“I never see him doing any work there,” continued Harris, “whenever I go in. He sits behind a bit of glass all day, trying to look as if he was doing something. What’s the good of a man behind a bit of glass? I have to work for my living. Why can’t he work. What use is he there, and what’s the good of their banks? They take your money, and then, when you draw a cheque, they send it back smeared all over with ‘No effects,’ ‘Refer to drawer.’ What’s the good of that? That’s the sort of trick they served me twice last week. I’m not going to stand it much longer. I shall withdraw my account. If he was here, we could go and see that tomb. I don’t believe he’s at the bank at all. He’s larking about somewhere, that’s what he’s doing, leaving us to do all the work. I’m going to get out, and have a drink.”
I pointed out to him that we were miles away from a pub.; and then he went on about the river, and what was the good of the river, and was everyone who came on the river to die of thirst?
It is always best to let Harris have his head when he gets like this. Then he pumps himself out, and is quiet afterwards.
I reminded him that there was concentrated lemonade in the hamper, and a gallon-jar of water in the nose of the boat, and that the two only wanted mixing to make a cool and refreshing beverage.
Then he flew off about lemonade, and “such-like Sunday-school slops,” as he termed them, ginger-beer, raspberry syrup, &c., &c. He said they all produced dyspepsia, and ruined body and soul alike, and were the cause of half the crime in England.
He said he must drink something, however, and climbed upon the seat, and leant over to get the bottle. It was right at the bottom of the hamper, and seemed difficult to find, and he had to lean over further and further, and, in trying to steer at the same time, from a topsy-turvy point of view, he pulled the wrong line, and sent the boat into the bank, and the shock upset him, and he dived down right into the hamper, and stood there on his head, holding on to the sides of the boat like grim death, his legs sticking up into the air. He dared not move for fear of going over, and had to stay there till I could get hold of his legs, and haul him back, and that made him madder than ever.