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Chapter 10

THE RIVER

'Are you fond of the water?' is a question very frequently asked,
in hot summer weather, by amphibious-looking young men. 'Very,' is
the general reply. 'An't you?'--'Hardly ever off it,' is the
response, accompanied by sundry adjectives, expressive of the
speaker's heartfelt admiration of that element. Now, with all
respect for the opinion of society in general, and cutter clubs in
particular, we humbly suggest that some of the most painful
reminiscences in the mind of every individual who has occasionally
disported himself on the Thames, must be connected with his aquatic
recreations. Who ever heard of a successful water-party?--or to
put the question in a still more intelligible form, who ever saw
one? We have been on water excursions out of number, but we
solemnly declare that we cannot call to mind one single occasion of
the kind, which was not marked by more miseries than any one would
suppose could be reasonably crowded into the space of some eight or
nine hours. Something has always gone wrong. Either the cork of
the salad-dressing has come out, or the most anxiously expected
member of the party has not come out, or the most disagreeable man
in company would come out, or a child or two have fallen into the
water, or the gentleman who undertook to steer has endangered
everybody's life all the way, or the gentlemen who volunteered to
row have been 'out of practice,' and performed very alarming
evolutions, putting their oars down into the water and not being
able to get them up again, or taking terrific pulls without putting
them in at all; in either case, pitching over on the backs of their
heads with startling violence, and exhibiting the soles of their
pumps to the 'sitters' in the boat, in a very humiliating manner.

We grant that the banks of the Thames are very beautiful at
Richmond and Twickenham, and other distant havens, often sought
though seldom reached; but from the 'Red-us' back to Blackfriars-
bridge, the scene is wonderfully changed. The Penitentiary is a
noble building, no doubt, and the sportive youths who 'go in' at
that particular part of the river, on a summer's evening, may be
all very well in perspective; but when you are obliged to keep in
shore coming home, and the young ladies will colour up, and look
perseveringly the other way, while the married dittos cough
slightly, and stare very hard at the water, you feel awkward--
especially if you happen to have been attempting the most distant
approach to sentimentality, for an hour or two previously.

Although experience and suffering have produced in our minds the
result we have just stated, we are by no means blind to a proper
sense of the fun which a looker-on may extract from the amateurs of
boating. What can be more amusing than Searle's yard on a fine
Sunday morning? It's a Richmond tide, and some dozen boats are
preparing for the reception of the parties who have engaged them.
Two or three fellows in great rough trousers and Guernsey shirts,
are getting them ready by easy stages; now coming down the yard
with a pair of sculls and a cushion--then having a chat with the
'Jack,' who, like all his tribe, seems to be wholly incapable of
doing anything but lounging about--then going back again, and
returning with a rudder-line and a stretcher--then solacing
themselves with another chat--and then wondering, with their hands
in their capacious pockets, 'where them gentlemen's got to as
ordered the six.' One of these, the head man, with the legs of his
trousers carefully tucked up at the bottom, to admit the water, we
presume--for it is an element in which he is infinitely more at
home than on land--is quite a character, and shares with the
defunct oyster-swallower the celebrated name of 'Dando.' Watch
him, as taking a few minutes' respite from his toils, he
negligently seats himself on the edge of a boat, and fans his broad
bushy chest with a cap scarcely half so furry. Look at his
magnificent, though reddish whiskers, and mark the somewhat native
humour with which he 'chaffs' the boys and 'prentices, or cunningly
gammons the gen'lm'n into the gift of a glass of gin, of which we
verily believe he swallows in one day as much as any six ordinary
men, without ever being one atom the worse for it.

But the party arrives, and Dando, relieved from his state of
uncertainty, starts up into activity. They approach in full
aquatic costume, with round blue jackets, striped shirts, and caps
of all sizes and patterns, from the velvet skull-cap of French
manufacture, to the easy head-dress familiar to the students of the
old spelling-books, as having, on the authority of the portrait,
formed part of the costume of the Reverend Mr. Dilworth.

This is the most amusing time to observe a regular Sunday water-
party. There has evidently been up to this period no
inconsiderable degree of boasting on everybody's part relative to
his knowledge of navigation; the sight of the water rapidly cools
their courage, and the air of self-denial with which each of them
insists on somebody else's taking an oar, is perfectly delightful.
At length, after a great deal of changing and fidgeting, consequent
upon the election of a stroke-oar: the inability of one gentleman
to pull on this side, of another to pull on that, and of a third to
pull at all, the boat's crew are seated. 'Shove her off!' cries
the cockswain, who looks as easy and comfortable as if he were
steering in the Bay of Biscay. The order is obeyed; the boat is
immediately turned completely round, and proceeds towards
Westminster-bridge, amidst such a splashing and struggling as never
was seen before, except when the Royal George went down. 'Back
wa'ater, sir,' shouts Dando, 'Back wa'ater, you sir, aft;' upon
which everybody thinking he must be the individual referred to,
they all back water, and back comes the boat, stern first, to the
spot whence it started. 'Back water, you sir, aft; pull round, you
sir, for'ad, can't you?' shouts Dando, in a frenzy of excitement.
'Pull round, Tom, can't you?' re-echoes one of the party. 'Tom
an't for'ad,' replies another. 'Yes, he is,' cries a third; and
the unfortunate young man, at the imminent risk of breaking a
blood-vessel, pulls and pulls, until the head of the boat fairly
lies in the direction of Vauxhall-bridge. 'That's right--now pull
all on you!' shouts Dando again, adding, in an under-tone, to
somebody by him, 'Blowed if hever I see sich a set of muffs!' and
away jogs the boat in a zigzag direction, every one of the six oars
dipping into the water at a different time; and the yard is once
more clear, until the arrival of the next party.

A well-contested rowing-match on the Thames, is a very lively and
interesting scene. The water is studded with boats of all sorts,
kinds, and descriptions; places in the coal-barges at the different
wharfs are let to crowds of spectators, beer and tobacco flow
freely about; men, women, and children wait for the start in
breathless expectation; cutters of six and eight oars glide gently
up and down, waiting to accompany their proteges during the race;
bands of music add to the animation, if not to the harmony of the
scene; groups of watermen are assembled at the different stairs,
discussing the merits of the respective candidates; and the prize
wherry, which is rowed slowly about by a pair of sculls, is an
object of general interest.

Two o'clock strikes, and everybody looks anxiously in the direction
of the bridge through which the candidates for the prize will come-
-half-past two, and the general attention which has been preserved
so long begins to flag, when suddenly a gun is heard, and a noise
of distant hurra'ing along each bank of the river--every head is
bent forward--the noise draws nearer and nearer--the boats which
have been waiting at the bridge start briskly up the river, and a
well-manned galley shoots through the arch, the sitters cheering on
the boats behind them, which are not yet visible.

'Here they are,' is the general cry--and through darts the first
boat, the men in her, stripped to the skin, and exerting every
muscle to preserve the advantage they have gained--four other boats
follow close astern; there are not two boats' length between them--
the shouting is tremendous, and the interest intense. 'Go on,
Pink'--'Give it her, Red'--'Sulliwin for ever'--'Bravo! George'--
'Now, Tom, now--now--now--why don't your partner stretch out?'--
'Two pots to a pint on Yellow,' &c., &c. Every little public-house
fires its gun, and hoists its flag; and the men who win the heat,
come in, amidst a splashing and shouting, and banging and
confusion, which no one can imagine who has not witnessed it, and
of which any description would convey a very faint idea.

One of the most amusing places we know is the steam-wharf of the
London Bridge, or St. Katharine's Dock Company, on a Saturday
morning in summer, when the Gravesend and Margate steamers are
usually crowded to excess; and as we have just taken a glance at
the river above bridge, we hope our readers will not object to
accompany us on board a Gravesend packet.

Coaches are every moment setting down at the entrance to the wharf,
and the stare of bewildered astonishment with which the 'fares'
resign themselves and their luggage into the hands of the porters,
who seize all the packages at once as a matter of course, and run
away with them, heaven knows where, is laughable in the extreme. A
Margate boat lies alongside the wharf, the Gravesend boat (which
starts first) lies alongside that again; and as a temporary
communication is formed between the two, by means of a plank and
hand-rail, the natural confusion of the scene is by no means
diminished.

'Gravesend?' inquires a stout father of a stout family, who follow
him, under the guidance of their mother, and a servant, at the no
small risk of two or three of them being left behind in the
confusion. 'Gravesend?'

'Pass on, if you please, sir,' replies the attendant--'other boat,
sir.'

Hereupon the stout father, being rather mystified, and the stout
mother rather distracted by maternal anxiety, the whole party
deposit themselves in the Margate boat, and after having
congratulated himself on having secured very comfortable seats, the
stout father sallies to the chimney to look for his luggage, which
he has a faint recollection of having given some man, something, to
take somewhere. No luggage, however, bearing the most remote
resemblance to his own, in shape or form, is to be discovered; on
which the stout father calls very loudly for an officer, to whom he
states the case, in the presence of another father of another
family--a little thin man--who entirely concurs with him (the stout
father) in thinking that it's high time something was done with
these steam companies, and that as the Corporation Bill failed to
do it, something else must; for really people's property is not to
be sacrificed in this way; and that if the luggage isn't restored
without delay, he will take care it shall be put in the papers, for
the public is not to be the victim of these great monopolies. To
this, the officer, in his turn, replies, that that company, ever
since it has been St. Kat'rine's Dock Company, has protected life
and property; that if it had been the London Bridge Wharf Company,
indeed, he shouldn't have wondered, seeing that the morality of
that company (they being the opposition) can't be answered for, by
no one; but as it is, he's convinced there must be some mistake,
and he wouldn't mind making a solemn oath afore a magistrate that
the gentleman'll find his luggage afore he gets to Margate.

Here the stout father, thinking he is making a capital point,
replies, that as it happens, he is not going to Margate at all, and
that 'Passenger to Gravesend' was on the luggage, in letters of
full two inches long; on which the officer rapidly explains the
mistake, and the stout mother, and the stout children, and the
servant, are hurried with all possible despatch on board the
Gravesend boat, which they reached just in time to discover that
their luggage is there, and that their comfortable seats are not.
Then the bell, which is the signal for the Gravesend boat starting,
begins to ring most furiously: and people keep time to the bell,
by running in and out of our boat at a double-quick pace. The bell
stops; the boat starts: people who have been taking leave of their
friends on board, are carried away against their will; and people
who have been taking leave of their friends on shore, find that
they have performed a very needless ceremony, in consequence of
their not being carried away at all. The regular passengers, who
have season tickets, go below to breakfast; people who have
purchased morning papers, compose themselves to read them; and
people who have not been down the river before, think that both the
shipping and the water, look a great deal better at a distance.

When we get down about as far as Blackwall, and begin to move at a
quicker rate, the spirits of the passengers appear to rise in
proportion. Old women who have brought large wicker hand-baskets
with them, set seriously to work at the demolition of heavy
sandwiches, and pass round a wine-glass, which is frequently
replenished from a flat bottle like a stomach-warmer, with
considerable glee: handing it first to the gentleman in the
foraging-cap, who plays the harp--partly as an expression of
satisfaction with his previous exertions, and partly to induce him
to play 'Dumbledumbdeary,' for 'Alick' to dance to; which being
done, Alick, who is a damp earthy child in red worsted socks, takes
certain small jumps upon the deck, to the unspeakable satisfaction
of his family circle. Girls who have brought the first volume of
some new novel in their reticule, become extremely plaintive, and
expatiate to Mr. Brown, or young Mr. O'Brien, who has been looking
over them, on the blueness of the sky, and brightness of the water;
on which Mr. Brown or Mr. O'Brien, as the case may be, remarks in a
low voice that he has been quite insensible of late to the beauties
of nature, that his whole thoughts and wishes have centred in one
object alone--whereupon the young lady looks up, and failing in her
attempt to appear unconscious, looks down again; and turns over the
next leaf with great difficulty, in order to afford opportunity for
a lengthened pressure of the hand.

Telescopes, sandwiches, and glasses of brandy-and-water cold
without, begin to be in great requisition; and bashful men who have
been looking down the hatchway at the engine, find, to their great
relief, a subject on which they can converse with one another--and
a copious one too--Steam.

'Wonderful thing steam, sir.' 'Ah! (a deep-drawn sigh) it is
indeed, sir.' 'Great power, sir.' 'Immense--immense!' 'Great
deal done by steam, sir.' 'Ah! (another sigh at the immensity of
the subject, and a knowing shake of the head) you may say that,
sir.' 'Still in its infancy, they say, sir.' Novel remarks of
this kind, are generally the commencement of a conversation which
is prolonged until the conclusion of the trip, and, perhaps, lays
the foundation of a speaking acquaintance between half-a-dozen
gentlemen, who, having their families at Gravesend, take season
tickets for the boat, and dine on board regularly every afternoon.

Charles Dickens