It was a trying situation for us – very trying. There seemed to be no answer.
We looked around for the two young men who had done this thing, but they had left
the house in an unostentatious manner immediately after the end of the song.
That was the end of that party. I never saw a party break up so quietly, and
with so little fuss. We never said good-night even to one another. We came downstairs
one at a time, walking softly, and keeping the shady side. We asked the servant
for our hats and coats in whispers, and opened the door for ourselves, and slipped
out, and got round the corner quickly, avoiding each other as much as possible.
I have never taken much interest in German songs since
We reached Sunbury Lock at half-past three. The river is sweetly pretty just
there before you come to the gates, and the backwater is charming; but don't attempt
to row up it.
I tried to do so once. I was sculling, and asked the fellows who were steering
if they thought it could be done, and they said, oh, yes, they thought so, if I
pulled hard. We were just under the little foot-bridge that crosses it between the
two weirs, when they said this, and I bent down over the sculls, and set myself
up, and pulled.
I pulled splendidly. I got well into a steady rhythmical swing. I put my arms,
and my legs, and my back into it. I set myself a good, quick, dashing stroke, and
worked in really grand style. My two friends said it was a pleasure to watch me.
At the end of five minutes, I thought we ought to be pretty near the weir, and I
looked up. We were under the bridge, in exactly the same spot that we were when
I began, and there were those two idiots, injuring themselves by violent laughing.
I had been grinding away like mad to keep that boat stuck still under that bridge.
I let other people pull up backwaters against strong streams now.
We sculled up to Walton, a rather large place for a riverside town. As with all
riverside places, only the tiniest corner of it comes down to the water, so that
from the boat you might fancy it was a village of some half-dozen houses, all told.
Windsor and Abingdon are the only towns between London and Oxford that you can really
see anything of from the stream. All the others hide round corners, and merely peep
at the river down one street: my thanks to them for being so considerate, and leaving
the river-banks to woods and fields and water-works.
Even Reading, though it does its best to spoil and sully and make hideous as
much of the river as it can reach, is good-natured enough to keep its ugly face
a good deal out of sight.
Caesar, of course, had a little place at Walton – a camp, or an entrenchment,
or something of that sort. Caesar was a regular up-river man. Also Queen Elizabeth,
she was there, too. You can never get away from that woman, go where you will. Cromwell
and Bradshaw (not the guide man, but the King Charles's head man) likewise sojourned
here. They must have been quite a pleasant little party, altogether.
There is an iron ''scold's bridle'' in Walton Church. They used these things
in ancient days for curbing women's tongues. They have given up the attempt now.
I suppose iron was getting scarce, and nothing else would be strong enough.
There are also tombs of note in the church, and I was afraid I should never get
Harris past them; but he didn't seem to think of them, and we went on. Above the
bridge the river winds tremendously. This makes it look picturesque; but it irritates
you from a towing or sculling point of view, and causes argument between the man
who is pulling and the man who is steering.
You pass Oatlands Park on the right bank here. It is a famous old place. Henry
VIII. stole it from some one or the other, I forget whom now, and lived in it. There
is a grotto in the park which you can see for a fee, and which is supposed to be
very wonderful; but I cannot see much in it myself. The late Duchess of York, who
lived at Oatlands, was very fond of dogs, and kept an immense number. She had a
special graveyard made, in which to bury them when they died, and there they lie,
about fifty of them, with a tombstone over each, and an epitaph inscribed thereon.
Well, I dare say they deserve it quite as much as the average Christian does.
At ''Corway Stakes'' – the first bend above Walton Bridge – was fought a battle
between Caesar and Cassivelaunus. Cassivelaunus had prepared the river for Caesar,
by planting it full of stakes (and had, no doubt, put up a notice-board). But Caesar
crossed in spite of this. You couldn't choke Caesar off that river. He is the sort
of man we want round the backwaters now.
Halliford and Shepperton are both pretty little spots where they touch the river;
but there is nothing remarkable about either of them. There is a tomb in Shepperton
churchyard, however, with a poem on it, and I was nervous lest Harris should want
to get out and fool round it. I saw him fix a longing eye on the landing-stage as
we drew near it, so I managed, by an adroit movement, to jerk his cap into the water,
and in the excitement of recovering that, and his indignation at my clumsiness,
he forgot all about his beloved graves.
At Weybridge, the Wey (a pretty little stream, navigable for small boats up to
Guildford, and one which I have always been making up my mind to explore, and never
have), the Bourne, and the Basingstoke Canal all enter the Thames together. The
lock is just opposite the town, and the first thing that we saw, when we came in
view of it, was George's blazer on one of the lock gates, closer inspection showing
that George was inside it.
Montmorency set up a furious barking, I shrieked, Harris roared; George waved
his hat, and yelled back. The lock-keeper rushed out with a drag, under the impression
that somebody had fallen into the lock, and appeared annoyed at finding that no
George had rather a curious oilskin-covered parcel in his hand. It was round
and flat at one end, with a long straight handle sticking out of it.
''What's that?'' said Harris – ''a frying-pan?''
''No,'' said George, with a strange, wild look glittering in his eyes; ''they
are all the rage this season; everybody has got them up the river. It's a banjo.''
''I never knew you played the banjo!'' cried Harris and I, in one breath.
''Not exactly,'' replied George: ''but it's very easy, they tell me; and I've
got the instruction book!''
GEORGE IS INTRODUCED TO WORK. – HEATHENISH INSTINCTS OF TOW-LINES. – UNGRATEFUL
CONDUCT OF A DOUBLE-SCULLING SKIFF. – TOWERS AND TOWED. – A USE DISCOVERED FOR LOVERS.
– STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF AN ELDERLY LADY. – MUCH HASTE, LESS SPEED. – BEING TOWED
BY GIRLS: EXCITING SENSATION. – THE MISSING LOCK OR THE HAUNTED RIVER. – MUSIC.
We made George work, now we had got him. He did not want to work, of course;
that goes without saying. He had had a hard time in the City, so he explained. Harris,
who is callous in his nature, and not prone to pity, said:
''Ah! and now you are going to have a hard time on the river for a change; change
is good for everyone. Out you get!''
He could not in conscience – not even George's conscience – object, though he
did suggest that, perhaps, it would be better for him to stop in the boat, and get
tea ready, while Harris and I towed, because getting tea was such a worrying work,
and Harris and I looked tired. The only reply we made to this, however, was to pass
him over the tow-line, and he took it, and stepped out.
There is something very strange and unaccountable about a tow-line. You roll
it up with as much patience and care as you would take to fold up a new pair of
trousers, and five minutes afterwards, when you pick it up, it is one ghastly, soul-revolting
I do not wish to be insulting, but I firmly believe that if you took an average
tow-line, and stretched it out straight across the middle of a field, and then turned
your back on it for thirty seconds, that, when you looked round again, you would
find that it had got itself altogether in a heap in the middle of the field, and
had twisted itself up, and tied itself into knots, and lost its two ends, and become
all loops; and it would take you a good half-hour, sitting down there on the grass
and swearing all the while, to disentangle it again.
That is my opinion of tow-lines in general. Of course, there may be honourable
exceptions; I do not say that there are not. There may be tow-lines that are a credit
to their profession – conscientious, respectable tow-lines – tow-lines that do not
imagine they are crochet– work, and try to knit themselves up into antimacassars
the instant they are left to themselves. I say there MAY be such tow-lines; I sincerely
hope there are. But I have not met with them.
This tow-line I had taken in myself just before we had got to the lock. I would
not let Harris touch it, because he is careless. I had looped it round slowly and
cautiously, and tied it up in the middle, and folded it in two, and laid it down
gently at the bottom of the boat. Harris had lifted it up scientifically, and had
put it into George's hand. George had taken it firmly, and held it away from him,
and had begun to unravel it as if he were taking the swaddling clothes off a new-born
infant; and, before he had unwound a dozen yards, the thing was more like a badly-made
door-mat than anything else.
It is always the same, and the same sort of thing always goes on in connection
with it. The man on the bank, who is trying to disentangle it, thinks all the fault
lies with the man who rolled it up; and when a man up the river thinks a thing,
he says it.
''What have you been trying to do with it, make a fishing-net of it? You've made
a nice mess you have; why couldn't you wind it up properly, you silly dummy?'' he
grunts from time to time as he struggles wildly with it, and lays it out flat on
the tow-path, and runs round and round it, trying to find the end.
On the other hand, the man who wound it up thinks the whole cause of the muddle
rests with the man who is trying to unwind it.
''It was all right when you took it!'' he exclaims indignantly. ''Why don't you
think what you are doing? You go about things in such a slap-dash style. You'd get
a scaffolding pole entangled you would!''
And they feel so angry with one another that they would like to hang each other
with the thing.
Ten minutes go by, and the first man gives a yell and goes mad, and dances on
the rope, and tries to pull it straight by seizing hold of the first piece that
comes to his hand and hauling at it. Of course, this only gets it into a tighter
tangle than ever. Then the second man climbs out of the boat and comes to help him,
and they get in each other's way, and hinder one another. They both get hold of
the same bit of line, and pull at it in opposite directions, and wonder where it
is caught. In the end, they do get it clear, and then turn round and find that the
boat has drifted off, and is making straight for the weir.
This really happened once to my own knowledge. It was up by Boveney, one rather
windy morning. We were pulling down stream, and, as we came round the bend, we noticed
a couple of men on the bank. They were looking at each other with as bewildered
and helplessly miserable expression as I have ever witnessed on any human countenance
before or since, and they held a long tow-line between them. It was clear that something
had happened, so we eased up and asked them what was the matter.
''Why, our boat's gone off!'' they replied in an indignant tone. ''We just got
out to disentangle the tow-line, and when we looked round, it was gone!''
And they seemed hurt at what they evidently regarded as a mean and ungrateful
act on the part of the boat.
We found the truant for them half a mile further down, held by some rushes, and
we brought it back to them. I bet they did not give that boat another chance for
I shall never forget the picture of those two men walking up and down the bank
with a tow-line, looking for their boat.
One sees a good many funny incidents up the river in connection with towing.
One of the most common is the sight of a couple of towers, walking briskly along,
deep in an animated discussion, while the man in the boat, a hundred yards behind
them, is vainly shrieking to them to stop, and making frantic signs of distress
with a scull. Something has gone wrong; the rudder has come off, or the boat-hook
has slipped overboard, or his hat has dropped into the water and is floating rapidly
He calls to them to stop, quite gently and politely at first.
''Hi! stop a minute, will you?'' he shouts cheerily. ''I've dropped my hat over-board.''
Then: ''Hi! Tom – Dick! can't you hear?'' not quite so affably this time.
Then: ''Hi! Confound YOU, you dunder-headed idiots! Hi! stop! Oh you – !''
After that he springs up, and dances about, and roars himself red in the face,
and curses everything he knows. And the small boys on the bank stop and jeer at
him, and pitch stones at him as he is pulled along past them, at the rate of four
miles an hour, and can't get out.
Much of this sort of trouble would be saved if those who are towing would keep
remembering that they are towing, and give a pretty frequent look round to see how
their man is getting on. It is best to let one person tow. When two are doing it,
they get chattering, and forget, and the boat itself, offering, as it does, but
little resistance, is of no real service in reminding them of the fact.
As an example of how utterly oblivious a pair of towers can be to their work,
George told us, later on in the evening, when we were discussing the subject after
supper, of a very curious instance.
He and three other men, so he said, were sculling a very heavily laden boat up
from Maidenhead one evening, and a little above Cookham lock they noticed a fellow
and a girl, walking along the towpath, both deep in an apparently interesting and
absorbing conversation. They were carrying a boat-hook between them, and, attached
to the boat-hook was a tow-line, which trailed behind them, its end in the water.
No boat was near, no boat was in sight. There must have been a boat attached to
that tow-line at some time or other, that was certain; but what had become of it,
what ghastly fate had overtaken it, and those who had been left in it, was buried
in mystery. Whatever the accident may have been, however, it had in no way disturbed
the young lady and gentleman, who were towing. They had the boat-hook and they had
the line, and that seemed to be all that they thought necessary to their work.