VIII. THE BOAT OF ALL-WORK.
IT didn't rain "cats and dogs" nor
"pitchforks;" it simply rained very hard, indeed; likewise it blew
very hard; and having doubts about the stability of the ribs of my umbrella, I
turned into a little archway in the Strand to wait till the bluster abated a
bit. Though narrow, it was a deep archway-so deep that vision was baulked by the
gloom that crept up from the latter end of it, wherever that might be. There was
shelter for fifty people at least; and, standing there alone, I could not help
thinking what simpletons the drenched pedestrians were not to do as I was doing.
"Now, sir, the boat! "
Full tilt against the notion that I had the archway all to myself, the observation rather startled me; but, finding that it emanated from no more formidable individual than a wizened old fellow in an overwhelming tarpaulin coat and a sou'-wester with ear-lappets, I at once recovered my self-possession, and addressed the lunatic, "Which boat, my friend ? what about a boat ?"
"Every quarten 'our, and it's just up, if you're agoin'," issued from between the monstrous ear-lappets. Then, seeing that I was still somewhat perplexed, he good- naturedly explained: "The Perseverance and the Grasshopper, and them-the 'a'penny boats, don't you know ? Down here takes you to 'em." Down there ? Absurd! My first impression was the correct one. The poor old gentleman was deranged. Some ancient waterman, once jolly and young, but ousted from his occupation by steamboats, and devoting the remnant of his life to the burking of his enemy's adherents. Gazing awfully down the murky, vaulted lane into which the villain had endeavoured to entice me, I pondered for a moment on my lucky escape, and then, casting up my eyes thankfully, saw that I had been shamefully unjust to the little man in tarpaulin. This was the road to the halfpenny steamboat pier; a board at the entrance to the cavern announced it, and that no mistake might occur, furnished a painted hand, with a finger pointing spectrally into the impenetrable gloom. I no longer regarded the old man as a dangerous enemy, but as a true friend. Thanks to the weak ribs of my umbrella in the first place, and him in the second, there was about to be elucidated a mystery that had troubled me for years.
So many years, indeed, is it since the matter began to trouble me that I was still so small a boy as to be unable to look over a bridge without climbing on one of the recess seats. So elevated, many a time have I watched the plain, low-squatting steamboats in question, ever dingy, ever slow, ever freighted with men who wore shabby jackets and who smoked short pipes, and by women just so lip-laden, and who wore cast-off coachman's coats in the winter, and silk pocket-handkerchiefs on their shoulders and inverted bonnets on their heads in the summer. Strewn about the decks of the boats, invariably, were big bags of old clothes and boots and shoes, and pyramids of scaly hampers bursting with soles and other fish, and baskets full of oranges and all sorts of nuts.
Of course there was nothing mysterious-nothing remarkable even-in all this; but what was remarkable (without doubt it would occur to a child sooner than to a man) was the air of drudgery that pervaded the length and breadth of the vessel. On working days it is, of course, the rule to find the bees of the world's hive wearing business airs as well as business garments, but work is by no means incompatible with cheerfulness. Moreover, public conveyances are regarded as mediums of pleasure as well as business, or why does the 'bus-driver wear a rose at his button-hole, or steamboat captains indulge in cigars when a pipe of humble birdseye would afford them as much gratification, and at a much cheaper rate ? Why is the scraping of fiddles, the twanging of harps, and the dulcet notes of concertinas allowed on board steamers that ply between the bridges, if the proprietors are not aware that idle, aimless pleasure-seekers comprise a fair percentage of their passengers ?
On board the Perseverance and the Grasshopper, however, things are managed very differently. No harp and violin, no cigar-smoking captain, no busy venders of "comic broadsheets;" all dull, and dreary, and weary- looking, as men are when unremuneratively "hard at it." For all that the "captain" looks like one, he might be a hardworking lighterman recently pressed into the service; and as he pensively rests his big hairy arms on the pipe through which he converses with the sooty man who, buried in the bowels of the vessel, feeds the roaring fire and tends the engine, you might fancy him pining for a haul at a pair of stout barge-oars. As for the passengers, they are either going to market, and fall of anxious wonder how they will "find things," and how far their bit of money will go, or else they are returning from market, and, having made good bargains, full of business anxiety to get home and realise; or, not seeing their way very clearly in the matter of their recent purchase, plunged in a slough of arithmetic, and endeavouring to extricate themselves by hideous contortions of countenance and by all sorts of nervous outspreading and handling of their dirty fingers and thumbs-it being no uncommon thing when the numbers, by reason of their exceeding ten, become embarrassing, for a man to borrow a digit or so of his neighbour, or for himself to mark farthings and fractions with a bit of chalk on his various knuckles. The good ship, meanwhile, as though conscious of the dead weight of work-of the sweating and bone-grinding for bread ever burdening her-seems to have altogether lost her spirits and the buoyancy natural to the boat tribe, and to have settled down a hard-working cobbler-(no, not a cobbler; cobblers whistle at their work and play at skittles on Mondays)-a hard-working tailor of a steamer, bending low at its work, and content to fag from morning till night for the small consideration of a boiler full of water and an occasional feed of coals.
The melancholy aspect of the business alone at first occurred to me; its wonderful feature did not strike me for some time; when it did, this was it. The Perseverance and the Grasshopper, and one or two other drudges of the same family, were ever busy, ever humbly wriggling their way with their heads to the east or to the west; but whither were they bound ? At what point on the Thames coast did the fish and fruit mongers take ship, and where did they disembark? My inquiries on the subject led to nothing definite. I learnt that the "'a'penny" ones owned but two piers on the river, and that one of them was "near Hungerford," and the other "just a stone's throw from London Bridge." So instructed, I have sought diligently for the places in question, but never could discover them. About London Bridge were steamboat piers enough; but the cheapest of them had the fare-one penny-so conspicuously displayed as to make inquiry mere impertinence; "near Hungerford" my explorations were equally diligent and equally fruitless. Having so far explained the business, the reader will the better understand the pleasure it gave me to find myself fairly on the track of the mysterious vessels.
Adopting the guidance of the spectral finger, I plunged into the gloomy alley, but, alas! speedily wished myself in the open Strand again; for, by-and-by, tiring of the length of the dismal lane, and fearing that I had mistaken the road, I turned off into the first opening that presented itself, and went blundering on till I found myself involved in that horrid vaulted maze formed by the "dark arches" of the Adelphi. There, looming- through the foul murk that enveloped the dreadful place, were the carts and waggons in which slept, till ousted by the police, the tramps and the houseless beggars. In sly nooks and corners were little heaps of straw and tan where the " regular" dark-arch lodgers slept. Here and there upon the arch-walls were green brands left by the river at its last rising, and more than once the squeaking and scrambling of rats were plainly audible. Thankful was I presently to arrive at a gap between the arches where the blessed light of day shone down, and there I resolved to wait till somebody happened to pass, and of whom I could inquire a way out of the pretty pickle I had got into.
I had not to wait long. First came the footsteps and voices, and then the forms of a troop of men and women with fish-baskets and fruit-baskets, and crockery such as is bartered for old clothes from door to door. " Pray," asked I of a man who, having but a little load of fish, could afford to pause for a moment, " Pray, is this the way to the halfpenny steamboat? "
"Well, this is one way," replied he. "This is the way we coves comes, 'cos it's a near cut. 'Spectable coves, like you, comes down Ivy Bridge Lane, side of the clock-shop in the Strand. Howsomever, 'taint worth while to go back. You keep straight down, and turn to the left, and you'll get to where they takes the 'a'pence." Following his injunctions, I finally arrived at a mite of a public-house propped, as it were, on stilts out of the river mud, and embowered in some sort of verdant mass that probably was ivy, but it was so enveloped in the substantial fog peculiar to certain parts of the Thames shore that I could not see very distinctly. I could just make out the sign of the house, however. It was the "Fox under the Hill."
Nearly opposite to the "Fox" was the hutch where sat the man who took the steamboat halfpence. If the business stirring that morning might be taken as a fair sample of halfpenny steamboat trading it might without hesitation be quoted as "brisk." It quite dazzled the sight to watch the dirty paw of the cashier within the hutch ever darting like a nimble, fine-legged spider at the halfpence pitched with that air of freedom that distinguishes the British costermonger on to the little board fronting the pigeon-hole. Likewise, if the passengers about to embark in the Endeavour represented a fair average, the charwomanish aspect of that worthy vessel at once ceased to be wonderful. Starting on the service in the most cheery way, and with every plank and spar about her as lithe and elastic as the sole use of ash and yew could render them, a score of trips could not fail to bring her to her knees, spiritless and jaded as the most elderly "slop hand" in the employ of those celebrated merchant "clippers"-A 1, and copper-hearted--Noses and Sons.
As I expected, I found no nonsense on board the Endeavour. The fittings were painted an appropriate lead colour; the forms were square, thick-legged, and substantial; no absurd caution decorated the base of the funnel concerning the impropriety of smoking abaft it; while as for any announcement advising you to abstain from conversation with the man at the wheel it was rendered quite unnecessary by the sullen and melancholy that characterised the steersman's purple visage. Looking down into the engine-room, you at once saw that the frivolities of rottenstone and polishing rags were despised. The Endeavour's engine, as the stoker who came up for a moment's breath of fresh air informed me, was meant for work, not to be laughed at by old women and bumpkins from the country, when I mentioned to him the fact that the day before I had seen on board a penny boat the engine rods and valves lustrous as plate-glass, and wearing in a handy chink a sprig of sweetwilliam, as a well- got-up and ponderous swell might wear a flower in his coat button-hole. The stoker growled a derisive laugh, and remarked that he expected soon to see the captains of "they boats a wearing of cocked hats, and the call-boys with welwet tights and calves." To return, however, to the passengers. There were big brawny men, with their garments spangled with the stale scales of fish, and wearing broadwise deep baskets likewise scaly, but speckled red by yesterday's strawberries, the owners, as it will happen when there is "nothing at the gate " (Billingsgate), being driven from his customary fishy path to invest his market-money at the "garden" (Covent Garden). There were big, brawny women, with great baskets, bound for Shorter Street, Spitalfields, the chief mart for all sorts of flawed and damaged crockery, to be bartered for " old clo'! " " Old clo'!" made its appearance in tremendous quantities in casks, and bags, and bundles, from the fashionable bonnet shapelessly crushed, but still brilliant, to mildewed castors, boots, and slipshod dancing-shoes. Beside the blousy and freckled traffickers in these and other sorts of goods, there were others, scores of them, who surely had no money to take to market, nothing to buy, nothing to sell, but who, tattered, torn, and hungry, were bound to the docks or thereabouts to see if a job might be picked up. Being hungry, say you, why not avoid the luxury of riding and tramp it afoot, comforting the belly with a little bread the while ? Because, after calculations as profound as those of men who buy and sell money as though it were taken in nets at sea, or who dabble up to their chins-up to the very steps, and over and above the chimney-pots of their Brompton villas-in tallow or palm oil; because, having pondered on their empty condition, and on the inability of man to hoist and carry huge weights when foot-weary as well as empty, they resolve that to part with the precious halfpenny is to be a gainer; or, perhaps, having regarded the approaching dissolution of their patch-fretted boots, it is evident economy to ride in a steamboat at the rate of a farthing a mile.