Selected Writings of Wm. Sharp, Vol. 5
MADGE O' THE POOL
A THAMES ETCHING
When the January fog, hangs heavy upon London it comes down upon the Pool as though it were sluiced there like a drain, or as a mass of garbage shot over a declivity in a waste place. The Pool is not a lovely spot in winter, athough it has a beauty of its own on the rare days when, the sun shines in an unclouded frosty sky, or when a northwester comes down from the distant heights of Highgate and Hampstead, and slaps the incoming tide with short splashes--of waves washed up by the downward current, till the whole reach of the Thames thereabouts is a jumble of blue and white and of gleaming if dirty greys and greens. On midwinter nights, too, when the moon has swung up out of the smoke, like a huge fire-balloon adrift from the Lambeth furnaces, and when the stars glint like javelin points, there is something worth seeing down there, where the forest of masts rises sheer and black, and where there is a constant cross-flash of red and green rays from innumerable bow lamps and stern windows and tipsy lanterns trailed awry through the rigging. A mile upstream, and it is wonderful what stillness prevails. For ever of course, the dull roar of omnibuses and cabs on the bridges, the muffled scraping sound of hundreds of persons moving rapidly afoot: from the banks, the tumult of indiscriminate voices and sounds of all kinds round and beyond the crank-crank of the cranes on the grain-wharves and the bashing of the brick and coal barges against the wooden piers. But upon the interspaces of the river, what comparative silence! A disjointed passenger-boat, with spelican funnel darting back to the perpendicular, shoots from under a bridge, and paddles swiftly down-stream like a frightened duck; a few moments, and it is out of sight, swallowed in the haze, or swung round a bend. A trio of barges, chained to each other like galley-slaves, passes upstream, drawn by what looks like a huge bluebottle-fly. The bluebottle is a tug-boat, a "barge-bug" in river parlance; and as it flaps the water with a swift spanking smash of its screw, the current is churned into a yeast of foam that is like snow against the bows of the first barge, and thin as dirty steam when washed from the sternmost into a narrow vanishing wake. As likely as not, the bargees are silent, pipely contemplative, taciturn in view of always imminent need for palaver of a kind almost unique in the scope and vigour of its blasphemy. Perhaps, however, the boy at the caboose forward whistles the tune of "O were I sodger gay," or that perennial favourite which recounts the deeds of Jack Do and Bob Didn't in the too familiar groves of Pentonville; or the seedy man in shirt-sleeves, who walks the starboard plank with a pole and thinks he is busy, may yell a ragged joke to a comrade similarly employed on one of the other barges. Or even, and indeed very probably, the heavily cravated, dogskin-capped helmsman may suddenly be moved to a hoarse volley of words so saturated, dominated, upheld, overborne by the epithet "bloody," that the "coalbunker" might almost be taken for a slaughter-house escaping in disguise. But even the barges slump up-stream out of sight before long: and then, how quiet the river is for a space! The wharf-rats are so fat that they make a stone-like splash when they plunge through the grain-dollops; but only a practised ear could recognise the sound in the rude wash of the current, or "spot" the shrill squeaks, as of a drowning and despairing penny-whistle, when a batch of these "Thames-chickens" scurries in sudden flight down a granary-slide and goes flop into the quagmires of mud left uncovered by the ebb. But at the Pool there is never complete silence. Even if there be no wind, the curses of the Poolites (in at least twenty varieties of human lingo) would cause enough current of air to crease the river's dirty skin here and there into a grim smile.
Like the rest of the world, the Pool has its sociable seasons. Broadly there are two. The shorter might be called that of the concertina and open-air "flings"; the longer that of the riverside singing-dens and dancing-saloons. But the regular population has not much time for systematic gaiety, not even in the long summer nights: a bad season, in fact, when there is little, business to be done and too much light to do it in. The stranger visiting the neighbourhood --that is to say, the stranger who carries in his aspect too obvious credentials as to his respectability might laugh at the idea of there being a Pool population at all, that is, of a permanent kind. He will find the saloons in the locality haunted by a motley gathering, where as a rule the ladies show no insular partiality in their acceptance of partners, whether in the dancing-shops or other dens of more or less repute; and where, without having had the advantages of an excellent training at a young ladies' academy, they seem quite at ease with gentlemen of foreignparts, coloured or otherwise, who talk no lingo but their own. It is, in fact, a cosmopolitan society. The civilisation of the West and the wisdom of the East meet constantly in the intercourse of the Irish dock-labourer and the Chinese "grubber"; and the coolie or Malay is as much at home as the Dutchman or Portugee.
There is a clan of which almost nothing is known. It is the people of the Pool. Ask the river-police, and they will tell you something of the "water-rats," though if your informant be candid he will add that he can't tell you much. Many unfortunate travellers have met members of the fraternity; for one of their favourite and most reputable pursuits is the ferrying at exorbitant prices (the inevitable purloining skilfully carried on at a certain stage is not charged for) of would-be voyagers by the Hamburg and Baltic steamers, when, on account of the tide, embarkation has to take place at midstream. The Poolites haunt Irongate and Horsleydown stairs, and are given to resenting active interest in their vested rights. But their chief means of life is otherwise obtained. They are the vermin of the Thames, and they scour its surface by night with irreproachable industry and thoroughness. It would not be easy to describe what they do, particularly under cover of mist or fog; it is simplest to say that they will do anything, except speak to a "cat" or refuse a drink. A "cat," it may be observed, is the name applied to a member of the river police; and as the "cats" are always worrying, even when not directly chasing the Poolites, or "rats," the result is incomparability of temper.
Many of the Poolites haunt holes and corners in the neighbourhood of Horsleydown stairs. Some have their lair in old boats, or among rotten sheds or wood-piles; others are as homeless, and as unpleasant and as fierce, as dung-beetles. Among them there are "rats" of either sex who are practically never ashore, whose knowledge of London is confined to familiarity with the grim river frontages, and whose sole concern in connection with "the real name of England" is a chronic uneasiness about her might and majesty in the guise of the police.
A score or so of Poolites are marked men. That is to say, either through length of experience in loafing and vagabondage, or owing to proved crime, their names are known to the "cats," and their persons occasionally wanted. An invincible modesty characterises the Poolite. He sees no distinction in public arrest, and the halo of a conviction does not allure him. In a word, he is a water-rat, and wishes to remain one.
The fact that he was so well known, and could easily be found, was a chronic sore in the drink-besotted mind of Dick Robins. He loathed this distinction, and could he have gained prolonged credit at any other gin-shop than that of his brother Bill be would have shifted his quarters. The fact that, as a younger man, twenty years earlier, when he was about thirty, he had thrice served his term in jail, may have prejudiced him against any radical change in his way of life. On the second occasion he had appropriated in too conspicuous a fashion the contents of a pocket, that of the wife of a sea-captain with whom he had found it difficult to come to an exorbitant arrangement; and for this very natural action he was condemned to three years' imprisonment, with atrocious and objectionable hard labour. He would have been embittered against the law to the end of his days, if he had not been so far mollified by the light sentence on his third "go" one of six weeks,--thus light, as the charge was only of having brutally kicked his wife up and down a barge and then into the half-frozen Thames. As she died of rheumatic fever, Mr. Robins could not legally, of course, be held accountable. For twenty years or more Dick Robins had found gin so pleasing a mistress that he had been unable to give any but the most nominal attention--it would be absurd to say to the education--to the growth of his daughter. Her name was "girl": that is, his name for her. Baptized Margaret, she was commonly called Madge. He realised that she was a girl, and comely, on account of various ideas of his own, and suggestions from outside, all on the same level of profound depravity. He first regarded her as a woman when, having lost eleven and fourpence at Wapping-euchre to Ned Bull, that gentleman generously offered to overlook the debt, and to spend the remaining eight and eightpence of the broken quid in two bottles of "Jamaicy" and four goes of "Aunt Maria," conditionally on receipt of Madge as the legal Mrs. Bull. The offer would have been accepted right off, but Mr. Robins found to his chagrin that the bottles of rum and goes of proof-gin would not be consumable till the marriage festival.
Madge was a dark, handsome girl, tall, well-made though too thin, somewhat slatternly in dress, though generally with a clean face and, stranger to say, with fairly clean hands. Neither she nor any one else would have dreamed of the application to her of the term "beautiful." Only those who caught a glimpse of her as she stood in a statuesque pose, pole in hand, on some hay barge or hoy in ballast, or as she sculled up stream or down, deft as a duck in the fentangle, noticed the beauty of her thick-clustered, ample hair, and mayhap the splendour of her large, dark, velvety eyes. Madge knew very little of shore-life, even that of the Horsleydown neighbourhood, and nothing at all of the larger life of that vast metropolis which represented the world to her: though she was vaguely aware that beyond the Isle of Dogs the Thames widened to that sea which bore the foreign ships which came to London, and brought so many mariners of divers nationalities, all equally eager for two things, strong drink and purchasable women. When ashore, she was generally at the house of her uncle Bill the publican, or, more often, at that of her sister-in-law, Nell Robins. For all her rough life, her rude imaginings, uncouth surroundings, her ignorance of refinement in speech or manner, Madge was pure of heart, honourable in all her intimate dealings, and as upright generally as she had any call to be.
Dick Robins was coarse and brutal enough in his talk when she had refused to desert the river-life of the Pool in order to act as barmaid at her uncle's public-house, the "Jolly Rovers." With all her experience and she could have given points to most specialists in blasphemy-- he learned the full vocabulary of utter degradation when she told her father that "Gawd hisself couldn't swop her to that beast, Ned Bull, without her will, which would never be till she was drownded, and not then."
The drink-sodden brute went so far, even before he violently struck her again and again, that, though he confirmed her in her abhorrence of the proposed union, he was the first great reforming force in her life. After that, she realised, she might "dry up." Foulness of speech could go no further. A disgust of it all came upon the girl. She prayed an unwonted prayer to that mysterious abstraction God, whose name she heard as often as that of the police, that she might have strength to refrain from all ugly horrors of speech, except, of course, such acknowledged ornaments of conversation as "bloody" and "damn."
Yet no, not quite the first, if the most immediate, reforming influence. She had already incurred the wrath and contempt of the Horsleydown and Irongate mudswipes, by her attitude towards Jim Shaw, a despised and hated "cat," a river policeman. He had saved her from drowning, on an occasion when the most obvious help lay with her own people, not one of whom, boy or man, had bestirred himself. "Water-rat" though she was, and acknowledged foe as was every "cat," she was so little at one with her kindred as to be able to feel grateful towards her saviour, particularlv as he was so good-looking a deliverer, and possessed, in her eyes, a manner of ideal grace and dignity.
It was on a dirty, foggy, December afternoon that Dick Robins had tried, through a flood of blasphemy and obscenity, to drift his meaning alongside the wharf of the girl's mind. When he found that she would have none of it, was a rebel outright, be followed curses with blows, till at last, wild with rage and pain, Madge rushed from the low tavern whither her father had inveigled her. Naturally she made straight for the river. Having sprung into a dingy, she sculled rapidly amid-stream. She had no idea what she was going to do. To get quite away from that horrible street, from that drink-den, from that human beast who called himself her father that was her one overmastering wish.
An unpleasant fate might easily have been hers that night, had she not fortunately broken an oar. The swing of the current caught the boat, and in a moment she was broadside on. A wood-barge and a collier were coming down, and a large steamer forging up-stream, and there she jobbled helplessly, right in their way, and almost certain to be crushed or swamped. All the girl's usual resourcefulness suddenly left her. She realised that she was done for, a thought at which not she only but her youth instinctively rebelled.
Suddenly, slump -- slump -- splash -- came the wood-barge almost upon her. She saw a pole thrust forward to stave the dingy off from too violent a concussion; and the next moment some one was over the low side and in the boat beside her. She recognised Jim Shaw, as in a dream.
Here, I'll pull you right," he said roughly; hand me that oar." While sculling from the stern-rollock, he told her that he had been up-stream on duty, and had been given a lift down again by his friend, the owner of the barge "Pride of Wapping"; that he had seen her predicament, and, as the distance narrowed, recognised her face; and that "there he was."
Madge thanked him earnestly, and remarked, incidently, that "it was a bloody near squeak." She saw him look at her, and glanced back with a new, vague apprehension.
"You're a pretty girl, Madge, and a good girl, I believe,--too good to use that rot. Wy, blast me, if I 'eard a sister o' mine use that word 'bloody' so free permiskuous, I'd let her know -- damme if I wouldn't!"
"Have you a sister, Mr.--Mr.--Shaw? asked Madge curiously, and not in the least off ended.
"No, nor no mother, neither; but I had 'em. Look here, Madge, I'm a lonely chap an' I've took a fancy to you--did that time I hauled ye out o' the Pool--and I'll tell you wot: you cut old Robins and all that gang and be my gal! "
Madge turned her great eyes upon him. He thought she was scornful, or mayhap only reckoning up the actual and possible advantages of the connection. She, for her part, was taken aback by what seemed to her his splendid chivalry and the refined charm of his address.
"Now then, lass, say yes or no, for we'll be along o' the Irongate in a jiffy, an' some o' your lot's bound to be there."
"I'll be your gal, Jim Shaw," was all she said, in a low voice.
Shaw thereupon gave the oar a twist, and kept the boat mid-stream for a hundred yards or so below Irongate wharf. When nearly opposite a small floating quay marked No. 9, he sculled alongside. Ten minutes later he had obtained leave of absence for the night, and then he and Madge went off together to hunt for lodgings.
For the next few days Madge was fairly happy. She would have been quite happy if she and Jim could have seen much of each other; but it was a busy time with the river police, and he could not get away at night. He returned to their room between six and eight in the morning, but had to sleep till well after midday; and as he had to be on duty again by six, sometimes earlier, they had not much time for going anywhere together. But, in truth, Madge cared little for the entertainments they did go to. The painted, tawdry women offended her in a way they had never done before; the coarse jokes of the men did not strike her as funny. She was dimly conscious of a great change in herself. Physically and mentally she was another woman after that first night alone with Jim. She was his "gal," and would be the mother of their "kid" if she had one; but it was not the obvious in wifehood or motherhood that took possession of her dormant imagination, but something mysterious, awful, even sacred. The outward sign of this spiritual revolution, this new, solemnising, exquisite obsession, was a complete cessation from even such customary flowers of speech as those above alluded to; and, later, a more scrupulous tidiness. What joy it was when Jim told her one morning that he was to have Boxing-day as a complete holiday! At last the heavens seemed opened. He proposed all manner of wild and extravagant trips: a visit to the inside of St. Paul's or the Tower, so familiar externally to both--visit to be followed by an omnibus-trip through the great city to that home of splendour, Madame Tussaud's, or even to the Zo÷logical Gardens, the monkeyhouse in which had made on Jim's boyhood mind an indelible impression of excruciating humour. The wildest suggestion of all was a triple glory: the Tower and St. Paul's, then far away to the gorgeous delights of the Crystal Palace, and at night to the Pantomime at Drury Lane.
But in great happiness the mind sometimes resents superfluity of joys. In deep love, as in deep water, says a great writer, there is a gloom. The gloom, in the instance of Madge, arose from her profound weariness of the streets and the house-life, her overmastering longing for the river. If an angel had offered her a boon, she would have fulfilled a passionate dream by becoming a female member of the river police, and being ranked as Jim Shaw's mate.
When Jim realised what was in the girl's mind and heart, he good-naturedly, though not without a sigh, gave up his projects, and bestirred himself to please Madge. One suggestion he did make: that they should get "spliced"; but Madge thought this a waste of time, money, and even welfare; for she vaguely realised that she had, and probably would continue to have, more hold over Jim as her "man" than as her legal husband. "It might be better," he remarked once meditatively.
"But why? don't I love you? " was Madge's na´ve and unanswerable reply.
By Christmas Day all was arranged. Jim knew the captain of a river steamer who had promised to take them as far as Kew. Thence they were to go by rail to Windsor, to show Madge those two marvels, where the Queen lived, and "the real country"; then they were to leave in time to catch the ebb-tide below Richmond, and go down-stream on a friend's hoy, the Dancing Mary, all the way to Gravesend. Madge would thus see the country and the ocean in one day, and yet all the time be on the river. The project was a mental intoxication to her. She was in a dream by day, a fever by night. Jim laughingly told her that he would be blowed if he would ask for another holiday soon.
A memorable day, indeed, it proved. Madge's education received an almost perilously rapid stimulus. Long before dusk she had won for herself, besides a little rapture, a new pain that would henceforth be a constant ally, and perhaps a tyrant.
The beauty even of the winter riverscape affected her painfully. That great stillness, that indescribable calm, that white peace, that stainless purity of the snowy vicinage of the Thames near Windsor, was an overwhelming reproach upon life as she knew it, and upon herself. She was conscious of three emotions: horror of the past, gratitude to Jim, her saviour and revealer, and a dumb sense of the glory of life as it might be. But at first she was simply overcome. If she had not feared how Jim would take such folly, she would have screamed, if for nothing else than to break the silence. He had his pipe, merciful boon for the stagnant spirit and the inactive mind; she had nothing to distract her outer from her inner self, nothing to case her from the dull perplexity and pain of that incessant if almost inarticulate soul-summons of which she was dimly conscious. More than once, even, a great home-sickness came upon her; a bodily nostalgia for that dirty, congested, often hideous, always squalid life, to which she had been born, and in which she had been bred. Once, at a lowly spot, where the river curved through snow-clad meadows, with an austere but exquisite beauty, she was conscious of a certain relief when she and her fellow-passengers were collectively swept by a volcanic lava-flood of abuse from an infuriated bargee, horrible to most ears that heard, but to her coming as inland odours to tired seamen, subtly welcome as it was in its appealing homesound.
She was affected as profoundly, if not so acutely, by the voyage down the lower reaches of the Thames beyond the Pool. Windsor itself had not greatly impressed her. It was too remotely grand.
When, late that night, the hoy anchored off Gravesend, and through the darkness came tip a moan, a sigh, a tumult as of muffled steps and stifled whispers, the voice of the sea, Madge, almost for the first time in her life, was troubled by the thought of death. The night was dark, without moon, and the stars were obscured by drifted smoke and opaque films of mist. An easterly wind worried the waves as they came slap-slapping against the current, and there was often a sound as of irregular musketry. A steady swish-swish accompanied the now flowing tide, or the way of the wind. The salt chill that came with it made the girl's blood tingle. She longed to do something, she knew not what.
They had two berths to themselves, screened so efficiently as to give them all the privacy of a bedroom. They were very happy after their long wonderful day; but what with happiness, many pipefuls of tobacco, and liberal gin, Jim soon fell asleep. Madge lay awake for hours. It was a boisterous night seaward. The reach of the Thames estuary thereabouts was all in a jumble. The wind, surging overhead, had a cry in it foreign to any inland wail or city scream. Madge listened and trembled. The sound of the sea calling. it was a revelation, a memory, a prophecy, a menace.
Next day, Madge learned what she had expected, that her voyage down-stream had been duly noted by her kindred. She knew them well enough to regret that she and Jim had not kept out of sight, at any rate, from London Bridge to the Isle of Dogs. Jim laughed at her fears, but warned her to hold her weather-eye open, and, in particular, to avoid the Pool.
This, unfortunately, was just what Madge could not do. She had the river-water in her blood. Jim might as well have put a mouse near a cheese and told it to stay beside the empty bread-plate.
Gradually she became a more and more frequent visitor to her old haunts. It was commonly understood, Irongate-way, that Madge had gone off with some seafaring chap, but was getting tired, or perhaps was not finding the "rhino" quite so free. On the other hand, her secret was known where she would fain have had it unguessed. She had a good deal to put up with. The female Poolites had nasty tongues; the males of the species, whom she had kept at bay before with comparative ease, believed that they might now have a turn. An unspoken but not less dreaded ban lay upon her on the part of her own people. Now and again she saw Ned Bull, and the savage lust in the man's brutal face, gleaming from its hatred and revengeful malice, sent all her nature into revolt. He caught her one day on Horsleydown stairs, and at once leered at her in devlish fashion and taunted her. She swung round and struck him full in the face.
The next moment she was in the water. When a sympathetic bystander had hauled her out--sympathetic in the sense that he wanted to see Bull "give the gal her change in full--the man strode up and hissed in her ear:
"I'll knife that bully-rip o' yourn as sure's I'm death on 'cats;' ay, an' wot's more, I'll 'ave you as my gal yet."
"Ay, Ned Bull," answered Madge, in a loud, clear voice, while her great eyes flashed dauntless defiance, "that you will when the Pool's run dry, an' I'm squeaking like a rat in the mud; but not afore that, s' 'elp me Gawd!"
After this episode Madge knew that she would have to be doubly on her guard. Ned Bull was not a man to have as an enemy, particularly as he knew well where to strike the only blow she really feared. As it happened, her fears ultimately proved to be only too well-grounded; though some months passed in apparent security.
The only one among all whom she knew who had remained loyal to her was a girl called Arabella Goodge, to whom she had once done a prompt service. The girl had sworn that she would never be content till she had proved her gratitude, and she meant it. The opportunity came at last.
Late one afternoon in June, just six months after her union with Jim, Madge was astonished to hear herself asked for at the door of her lodging. "Is this wheer Jim Shaw's gal lives?" was not tactful, perhaps, but it was unmistakable. Madge recognised the voice, and was eager to see one whom instinctively she knew to be a herald of good or evil; yet she could not but enjoy a delay which involved so personal a passage of arms as that which took place between Mrs. M'Corkoran, the landlady, and Miss Goodge. Ultimately Miss Goodge was announced into the presence of "Mrs. Shaw, an' Mrs. James Shaw at that, an' be damned t' ye?"
The girl came--and at what risk to herself no one could better know than Madge--to give warning of a plot. If the fog held, two boats of "rats" were to lie in wait that very night, and run down the Swiftsure, a particularly obnoxious "cat-boat." Of course Miss Goodge would not have troubled to track down and visit Madge merely to tell her an interesting item of news; only it happened that Jim Shaw was "stroke" in the Swiftsure.
Madge realised the peril at once. She thanked Arabella cordially, and then set off for Jim's station. The news was doubly welcome to Jim; it meant promotion probably, as well as the excitement of a fight and of turning the tables.
The upshot was, that a boat with three or four dummy figures was at the right hour set adrift through the fog just above the appointed spot. The bait took. The collision took place, and Jim Shaw's dummy in particular suffered from concussion of the brain from an iron crowbar as well as from submersion in the river. The "rats" had scarcely realised how they had been befooled when the Swiftsure was upon them. There was a rush and a struggle. The Pool-boat was upset, and each of the late occupants speedily nabbed, with the exception of Ned Bull--an exception which Jim Shaw regretted personally for obvious reasons, and officially because that individual was particularly wanted at headquarters, and his capture meant for the captor approval, and possibly promotion by the powers that were.
Nevertheless, practical approval came. True, the crew of the Swiftsure were individually and collectively called "duffers" for having let Bull escape, when at least they might have hit him on the head with an oar: 'though to this Jim Shaw replied, and of course was backed up by his comrades, that Ned Bull must have sunk and been carried off in the undertow. A drowned Ned Bull was not so satisfactory as a caught Ned Bull; but still the fact was one for congratulation.
What most concerned Shaw was his promotion a grade higher. The superintendent who informed--him of this rise further hinted that the young man was looked upon favourably, and that he might expect to get on, if he kept acting on the square and was diligently alert for the wicked.
On his way home next morning, eager to tell Madge the good news, Jim pondered on how best to celebrate the occasion. Suddenly an idea occurred to him. Promotion and prospects have a stimulating effect on ethical conceptions. Jim decided, firstly, that he would make Madge his legal wife; secondly, that he would forgive his enemies and invite old Robins and Will of the "Jolly Rovers," and Bob Robins and his wife, and make a day, or rather an evening, of it. This, he was sure, would give Madge a position and importance which she could not otherwise have, while it was almost the only way (except the convenient if perilous one of doubledealing) to remove, or at least to modify, the resentment which Madge had incurred. Madge was delighted with his news. It meant another day, sometime, up the river; another night, Gravesend way, within sound of the sea; and, moreover, Jim could now carry out his fascinating projects in connection with Madame Tussaud's and the Crystal Palace. To the question of the marriage ceremony she preserved an indifferent front. If Jim really wished it, she, of course, was willing; if he didn't, it was equally the same to her. The girl, in fact, was one of those rare natures to whom the thing was everything and the symbol of no moment. But she was seriously opposed to Jim's Christian charity in the matter of the proposed wcdding party. She loved his sentimental weakness, but, with her greater knowledge of ineradicable depravity, she thought that the honour of her father's company might be dispensed with. She yielded at last to the suggestion as to her brother Bob and his wife with a stipulation as to Arabella Goodge, but disparagingly combated the claims of her uncle. Being a woman, however, having begun yielding, she yielded all. Before Jim went off to the river that night, the marriage-day was fixed, and it was decided that, at the subsequent party at the aristocratic river-side tavern, the "Blue Boar," the company of Jim amid his groomsman, Ted Brown, and of Madge and her bridesmaid, Arabella Goodge, was to be further graced by Mr. Dick Robins (if sufficiently sober), Mr. and Mrs. Robert Robins, and Mr. William Robins of the "Jolly Rovers."
The marriage was to take place three weeks hence, as Jim was to get his long-promised holiday for a week, from the morning of Saturday the 18th of July till the evening of Friday the 24th. What a week this was to be! Three days of it was to be spent in the remote and wild country of Pinner, of which suburban locality Jim was a native, though he had not been there since he was a small boy. His aunt owned a small sweet-shop and general stationery business there, and would receive him and his bride for the slack days, Monday till Wednesday. As for the other days, the proposals of Madge were wild, and those of Jim fantastically extravagant. The young man was more in love with Madge than ever, having the sense to see that she was one among a hundred or a thousand. Their life together had been a happy one for both. It was Jim, however, and not Madge, who took a pleasurable interest in the fate of the child whose birth was expected in September.
It was on the 15th of July, just three days before the projected marriage, that Madge was startled, or at least perturbed, by an urgent message brought to her by a pot-boy from the "Jolly Rovers." Her father was ill, dying, and wanted to see her at once.
Madge was neither hard-hearted nor a cynic, but it was with perfect sincerity that she remarked, sotto voce, "I'll be blowed if I'll rise to that fake." Later, however, something troubled her. A new tenderness, if also a new weariness, had come to her ever since she became daily and hourly conscious of the burden she bore within her. She was so much an unsullied child of nature, despite all her discoloured and distorted views of life, that this mystery of motherhood had all the astounding appeal of a new and extra-ordinary revelation. Jim's child and her's! The thought was strange and quiet as that winter landscape she had seen once and never forgotten; though at times as strangely and overmasteringly oppressive as the silence of the starry sky, seen through the smoke or lifting fog, or above the flare of the gaslamps in the street.
The result was that she set out for Plum Alley, off Thompson's Court, the trans-riverine home of her father, when he was not at the "Jolly Rovers" or elsewhere. On the way she called at the station to see Jim, but heard, to her surprise, that he was on special duty Horseleydown-way. She muttered that she might perhaps come across him as she was just going there herself, a remark which the superintendent heard disapprovingly.
Shaw's out on ticklish business, my girl, he said, kindly enough; "and it would be better if you were to keep out of his way: better for us, better for him, and better for you." All the same Madge, as she went on her way, hoped she might at least get a glimpse of Jim. Since the Swiftsure incident she had never felt at ease when Shaw was on special duty. She was aware that Ned Bull, even if he was not drowned, had left a legacy of hate and revenge.
The July evening was heavy and sultry. The air was as though it consisted of a poisonous cloud of gin-flavoured human breath, with rank odours of divers kinds. In the narrow courts and alleys near the river the heat was stifling. The thunder, which all the afternoon had growled menacingly round the metropolitan skirts beyond Muswell Hill and Highgate, had stolen past the eastern heights of Hampstead and crawled through the murky gloom of the town till it rested, sulkily brooding, from Pimlico to Blackfriars.
As Madge crossed the river, and stood for a few minutes to look longingly at the water, she noticed first that the tide was just on the turn of the ebb, and next that a thick, sultry fog, scarce less dense than a typical "London mixture," was crawling stealthily upstream from Shoreditch and Wapping. She was thinking of Jim, and was rather glad that he was on shore-duty.
When at last she reached Plum Alley, she found, somewhat to her surprise, that her father really awaited her. On the other hand she saw at a glance that his "sudden illness" was a "fake."
Dick Robins, however, did not give his daughter time for an indignant retreat, much less for reproaches.
"Look 'ere, girl," he began hoarsely, "your brother Bob's in trouble, an' you're the only blarsted swipe as can 'elp 'im. S' 'elp me Gawd, this yere is true, ev'ry word on it, an' no fake. Wot? eh? W'ere is 'ee? Wy, 'ee 's down China Run way. 'Ee's waitin' there. Waitin' for wot? Wy, blarst--I mean, 'ee's awaitin' fur the stranger. Wot stranger? Wy, the stranger as you've to run down through the fog to the Isle o' Dogs."
Hoarse explanations, with remonstrances on the part of Madge, ensued, but at last she both understood and agreed. She had been brought up in full recognition of that cardinal rule that many things have to be done in life without knowing the why and the wherefore. She believed in the present emergency, and understood why the task of conveying the stranger down-stream could be intrusted to no Poolite under a cloud. She was to go down to the sadly miscalled Larkwhistle Wharf, where she would find a boat in charge of a man. In the stern would be the "bundle." She was not to speak to this "bundle" on any account, and was not to worry "it" with curious looks. She was to row down-stream till off Pig Point in the Isle of Dogs, and wait off-shore till another boat joined her, and relieved her of her freight. The man, a friendly lighterman, would act as look-out and bow-pilot.
"Wot about the weddin', father?" said Madge, somewhat reluctantly, as she was about to leave.
Mr. Robins put down the bottle of "Aunt Maria," from which he had just taken a hoarse gurgling, salival swig.
"Oh--ah--to be sure--wot about the weddin'! Ha, ha! Well, I'm blarsted if I know if my noomerous parlyhairymentary dooties"--hiccough and choke--"yes, by Goramity, I'm bl . . ."
Madge did not wait to hear any more. She had done her duty so far, and the sooner the rest of it was fulfilled the better content would she be.
She could not leave, however, without a parting shot. Dick Robins heard her voice as she vanished downstairs: "Remember, father, if you and 'Aunt Maria' come together on Saturday, you won't be allowed in!"
When she reached Larkwhistle Wharf she was perspiring heavily. The brooding thunder overhead, the stagnant atmosphere, the airless, suffocating fog, made existence a burden and action a misery. Movement on the water, however, promised some relief.
There was no one on the wharf, nothing beside it except a boat in which a muffled figure crouched in the stern-sheets, with a tall man seated upright in the bow. This was her boat, clearly.
As she stepped across the gunwale, Madge started and trembled. For a moment she thought she recognized in the silent, surly lighterman, no other than Ned Bull; but when she saw that he looked away, indifferent so far as she was concerned, and noticed that his hair was black and curly, and that he had a long beard, her sudden suspicion and fear lapsed into mere uneasiness. As for the other passenger, he was evidently determined to betray himself neither by word nor by gesture.
In silence, save for the occasional splash of an oar and the steady gurgling wash at the bows, Madge rowed the boat down-stream. Thrice she was unpleasantly conscious of the hot breath of the lighterman upon her cheek; at the third time, and without looking, round, she quietly asked him to keep a steady lookout in front of him, as in such a fog an accident might occur at any moment.
At last she guessed that she was off the Isle of Dogs. She was glad. Not only was she exhausted with the heat and labour, but somewhat anxious now about the condition of the boat, a rotten tub at the best. It had begun to leak, and the chill, muddy water clammed her ankles. Suddenly, through the fog, she heard the lighterman give a peculiar double-whistle. Almost immediately afterwards a boat, rowed swiftly by two men, shot alongside.
The next moment the lighterman was aboard the new-comer. Once seated, he leaned over, and, whispering hoarsely to Madge to row straight on, after turning the boat's bow shoreward, told her that as soon as he came to a pier she was to let the other passenger out. The man had scarce finished speaking before he and his companions became invisible in the mist.
Madge was again alarmed. The voice, surely was the voice of Ned Bull. She could have sworn to it, and yet--?
Wiping the sweat from her forehead, and pausing on her oars for a moment to listen to the distant moan and billowy hollow roar of the thunder, which, had at last broken its brooding silence, she noticed suddenly that the leakage was rapidly becoming serious. The water was high above her ankles, and was swiftly rising. A gurgling sound behind her betrayed where the danger lay. The boat had been plugged, and the plug had just recently been removed!
Barely had she realized this when the dingy raked up against a jagged spike, and began to settle down.
She knew it all now, all except the mystery of this taciturn, moveless stranger. So, Ned Bull was to have his revenge. But the need of prompt action brought all her energies into play. "Now then, you there," she cried angrily to her mute fellow-passenger, "you've got ter move if you don't want to fill yer boots wi' bottom-mud. We're sinkin', d'ye 'ear ? . . . Drat the bloomin' cove, 'ee's asleep! Hi!"
But here there was a lurch and a rush of water. The boat collapsed, as though it were a squeezed sponge.
No sooner had Madge found her breath after her submersion than she struck out towards and made a dive for her companion, who was evidently unable to swim, and was fast drowning.
A minute later she had grasped him by his rags. She was conscious at the same moment of a red light piercing the gloom: the bow-light of a barge-bug churning sputteringly against the current and towing a halfempty hoy up-stream. She gave a loud cry for help, and then another that was more like a shriek. The second was the result of a discovery that she had just made. The body in her grip was not that of a living man, nor even of a man who had just died. It was a corpse, stiff and chill.
The shock terrified her. For a moment she believed that she had been made, accessory to some foul murder. She let go of the hideous bundle of rag-clothed flesh she was upholding as best she could. Another moment, and the corpse would have been sucked under and swept down-stream: a vague instinct made Madge suddenly reach forward and grip the body again.
The lights of the tug and the green and red lanterns of the hoy now streamed right upon her. Weighted as she was with her soaked clothes, and the burden of her close on seven month's motherhood, she struggled not only to withstay the current, which fortunately was sweeping her steadily towards the hoy, but to keep the corpse from sinking until at least she could see it clear. Still, the strain was too great, and she was just about to let go, when a broad ray of light flashed full athwart the dead face.
It was that of Jim Shaw, her husband.
For a moment the world reeled. Death called to her out of the windy darkness overhead, out of the rushing river, out of the sea-reaches beyond; Death sang in her ears, and held her body and soul as in a vice; Death was in her heart, in her brain, on her lips, in the dull glaze of her staring eyes.
Suddenly a mad rage swept her back into the tide of agony that was life. With a swift gesture she raised the head of the corpse, and stared wildly into the lightless, unrecognising eyes. The wash of the water and her grasp had loosened the rags in which Jim had been disguised, and she saw the purple bruise and gaping knife-thrust-wound through which his young life had gone.
With a long, terrible cry of despair Madge let go of the body of her beloved, and herself sank back into the water as a dying woman, after a last flicker of life, might fall back into the pillows. If all had occurred a little earlier or a little later, she would have been drowned then and there, and have suffered no more.
The man at the helm on the tug-boat caught sight of her, and yelled to the man at the bow of the hoy. The bargeman missed her, owing to the rapid slush and surge of the churned water alongside; but his comrade at the stern caught at the swirling clothes with a bill-hook, and in a few minutes Madge was lying unconscious on the deck of The Golden Hope. Her rescuers had seen nothing of the row-boat, nor even of the body to which she had clung; but they strained their eyes and ears lest any other unfortunates should be in need of succour.
It was fortunate for Madge that there was a woman on board. The wife of the master of The Golden Hope was not like so many of the Poolites, merely a female, but a woman.
In the middle of the night, just before the break of dawn, a man-child was prematurely born into the world, in the stuffy deck-house of the barge. It was born dead: "an' a precious good thing too, drat it for its impertinence in a-coming where it wasn't wanted," as Mrs. Hawkins of The Golden Hope philosophically remarked. She had understood at once that the new-comer was not born in lawful wedlock. Had the little one lived, had it even been born alive and breathed feebly for a brief season, the good woman would not only have lamented its decease, but would have kept close to the letter of the law. As it was, she had a hurried colloquy with her husband, a circumloctitory argument to the effect that the poor young mother might as well be saved all the shame and trouble, and perhaps worse.
Mr. Peter Hawkins listened gravely, nodded once or twice in an uninterested way, spat once cautiously, then again meditatively, and finally, emphatically. He left the deckhouse, and in a minute or two returned with a large and heavy brick.
The dawn broke as The Golden Hope entered and passed through the Pool. A soft tender wave of daffodil light blotted out the eastern stars. The rigging and masts of the vessels at the docks and in the river became magically distinct, and the red and yellow lanterns flared gaudily. Here and there a green lantern-light danced along a narrow surface of dark water fast turning into a hue of slate. A dull noise came from the city on either side, though London seemed asleep.
On the river there was silence, save for an indiscriminate grinding noise from a large Baltic screw steamer, timed to sail at sunrise; and, on a China tea-clipper, a Malay singing shrilly, with fantastic choric variations of a strange, uncanny savagery.
As the barge slump-slushed through the deepest part of the Pool, a small package was dropped overboard. it sank immediately.
This package was, in the view of Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins, a cold little body with a heavy brick tied round its feet; to its mother who had just returned to full consciousness, the burial was as that of her own joy, her own life.
Madge was much too weak to move, even if kindly Mrs. Hawkins had hinted that her absence would be preferable to her company. The woman had taken a fancy to the poor lass, with her great eyes filled with grief and despair, with at times, too, a wild light which looked like passionate hate.
She had had a talk with her husband, and had decided to keep Madge with them till the barge reached Sunbury, where she had a sister, who in the summer months kept a small tea and ale house for her own benefit and the refreshment of cheap trippers and way-farers. There she would leave the girl for a time, in the care of Polly 'Awkins if Madge could pay for her keep, so much the better; if not, why then o' God's grace she and Polly betwixt them would provide for her for a bit till she could look round.
And at Sunbury in due course poor Madge was left. She had become a different woman in the few days which succeeded the death of Jim and the premature birth and loss of the child of their love. A frost had come over her youth. She was so still and strange that, at first, good, kindly, superabundantly stout Miss Hawkins was quite awed by her. The woman's generous kindness at last broke down the girl's reserve, and the whole story was confided to her. There was something so romantic in it to Polly Hawkins, the very breath of wild romance indeed, that, for all her disapproval and misapprehension of Madge's action in the matter of a legalised union, she was completely won over. Never, even in the Family Astounder or the West End Mirror, monthly parts or old bound volumes of which she was wont to pore over in the winter nights, had she come across anything that stirred her so much. But she passed from her high vicarious excitement into something resembling the emotional state of a participant in a tragedy in real life, when, one wild rain-swept evening late in August, all the bitter pain and agony and passion of Madge's ruined life broke out in revolt.
She had only one wish now, she declared, only one object: to be revenged on her father, and, above all, on Ned Bull. She was no longer a girl with a heaven of happiness ahead; she was a wrecked woman, with a choice between going to pieces on the breakers or being engulfed in a quicksand. Since all was ruin ahead, was she to surrender everything, to go tamely hence, a victim with no will or power of retribution? No, she swore, as with flashing eyes and erect figure she moved to and fro in the kitchen parlour, she would not be content till she had made her father pay her for his crime, pay with his life, and till she saw Ned Bull swing on the gallows.
Miss Hawkins realised that Madge was in earnest -- passionately, insanely in earnest; and she trembled. She had come to love the girl, and though her departure would be a loss both to her and her pocket (for Madge had communicated with Jim's comrades, who had raised a handsome subscription for her when they found that officially nothing could be done), she would not otherwise be ill at ease. But now--now it would be to let a murderess loose. Why, some day it would all be in the papers. A prospective persual of certain headlines brought out a cold perspiration upon her neck and forehead: "'Orrible Murder in the Docks," "Last Confession," "Execution of Madge Robins," "What did the Bargee do with the Baby?" "Testimony of Polly Hawkins," and so forth.
Miss Hawkins rose, looked at Madge in fear and trembling and deep admiration, all merged in a profound and loving pity. But she had not the gift of expression, and all she could say was: "My dear, 'ave some black-currant cordial."
Madge, however, understood. The tears broke out in a flood from her eyes, and with sobs and shaking frame she threw herself in the arms of her friend.
The following day was Sunday. As much for distraction as for any other reason, Miss Hawkins persuaded Madge to go with her to church. Madge had never been in a church, and for the first part of the service she was too shy and bewildered to understand, much less to enjoy, what she saw and heard. The singing soothed her, and some of the prayers left haunting echoes in her brain. The clergyman was that rare individual, a fervent Christian and a perfectly simple man, who did not fulfil his priestly duties perfunctorily, but as though he were a wise and loving gardener watering the precious flowers of a strict but beloved Master. She followed, or cared to follow, very little of what he said; but his earnestness impressed her. Through all his discourse sounded, like a wild moan and wail of the sea-wind, the words of his text: "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive our enemies." "Then shall we be together with the Lord," were the last words she heard the vicar utter, before the congregation rose at the benediction.
In discussing the matter later with Miss Hawkins she did not gain much enlightenment. Miss Hawkins said that religion was meant to be took like gin, with a good allowance of water. "It didn't do to take things just as they were spoke. Vicars an' sichlike were paid same as other folks, an' their business was to deal out salvation dashed wi' hell-fire.
"My dear," she added, "there's nary a man livin', be he a vicar or only a Ranting Johnny, who doesn't promise us more of both one and the other than there's any need for."
Madge did not sleep much that night. She was vaguely troubled. The fire of her wrath burned low; and though she heaped coals of remembrance upon it, the flare-up was a failure.
At breakfast next morning she asked Miss Hawkins abruptly if she had heard the vicar say, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive our enemies," and, if so, what she thought of it.
Miss Hawkins finished her tea. Meditatively she scooped out the sugar and slowly refilled the cup.
"Not much," she said.
The rest of the meal was taken in silence.
The day was so glorious that Madge wandered forth into a field near the river, unwittingly elate with returning youth and strength, and quick to answer to the sun's summons to the blood and the spirit.
She lay for a long time through the noon heat, instinctively revelling in the flood of sunshine. The sky was a dome of deepening blue, flecked with a few scattered greymare's-tails; the meadows were flush with the second hay and autumnal wild-flowers. Beyond her feet the river swept slowly by, the golden light falling along its surface and at once transmuted into silver and azure; while at the margins the over-hanging trees threw a cloud of flickering green shadows into the moving movelessness below.
It was almost happiness to lie there so quietly, and watch the swallows swooping to and fro, the cows standing knee-deep in the shallows and flapping lazily their long tails, the purple dragon-fly shooting from reedy pool to pool. For the time being, the agony of remembrance was dulled.
More and more Madge perplexed herself by pondering over what she had heard in church. She had never felt as she had today. There was a new peace, a new hope almost, in her troubled mind, though it had not yet taken definite form. The strange and baffling concourse of her thoughts, however, left her weary. The whole ebb and flow found expression, perhaps, in the sole words she spoke aloud:
"No, that I can't: I can't make much of it. But I do see that going back to that hell of life at the Pool, even wi' letting my father be, an' knockin' out the knifin' o' Ned Bull an' leavin' 'im, as the parson says, to Goramity, is not the way to get alongside o' Jim again, let alone that babby wich he'll 'ave 'igh an' dry sure as dixey."
It was nigh upon sundown before Madge clearly saw her way of salvation. "She'd got to die somehow"; but all her instincts were in revolt against that inevitable transference to the earth which would be her fate if death came upon her at Polly Hawkins's or any other house. "She couldn't abide the land: she knew that: not for all the blessedness of it ten times over."
Shortly before sunset she descried a boy going along the Sunbury towpath. She called him, and for sixpence he readily agreed to write a pencilled note at her dictation and thereafter deliver it to Miss Hawkins.
When the boy was gone Madge waited a little while. She watched the sun grow large and red, and fall through the river-haze into the very middle of the river-reaches higher up. Then she found herself listening intently to a corncrake calling hoarsely close by through the tall wheat.
It seemed so little to do, and after all so little even to say farewell to.
A brief while after sunset a great red and yellow hoy, with a tattered brown sail outspread aloft to catch what breeze there was that would help the slow current, came heavily down-stream. It was laden with rye, and the man and boy on deck were drowsy with the heat and labour of the day. Neither of them felt the slight shock when the dilapidated bow-keel caught upon some obstruction.
It was late that night when the Lively Nancy, in tow of a fat, unwieldy little barge-bug, slumped heavily through the jumble in the Pool. There was a heavy slashing, criss-cross of water above, and, below the surface, a serpentine twisting and dovetailing, with vicious downward suction. The tide was running up like a mill-race; the river-current and a high westerly wind tore their way sea-ward.
In this fierce conflict the bent keel of the Lively Nancy was at last cleared of its obstruction.
For an hour or more thereafter, till the river police discovered it, a woman's body was tossed to and fro in the Pool, idly drifting and bumping against the slimy piers, along the gaunt, deserted wharves.
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