WARGRAVE. - WAXWORKS. - SONNING. - OUR STEW. - MONTMORENCY IS SARCASTIC.
- FIGHT BETWEEN MONTMORENCY AND THE TEA-KETTLE. - GEORGE'S BANJO STUDIES.
- MEET WITH DISCOURAGEMENT. - DIFFICULTIES IN THE WAY OF THE MUSICAL
AMATEUR. - LEARNING TO PLAY THE BAGPIPES. - HARRIS FEELS SAD AFTER
SUPPER. - GEORGE AND I GO FOR A WALK. - RETURN HUNGRY AND WET. - THERE IS
A STRANGENESS ABOUT HARRIS. - HARRIS AND THE SWANS, A REMARKABLE STORY. -
HARRIS HAS A TROUBLED NIGHT.
WE caught a breeze, after lunch, which took us gently up past Wargrave
and Shiplake. Mellowed in the drowsy sunlight of a summer's afternoon,
Wargrave, nestling where the river bends, makes a sweet old picture as
you pass it, and one that lingers long upon the retina of memory.
The "George and Dragon" at Wargrave boasts a sign, painted on the one
side by Leslie, R.A., and on the other by Hodgson of that ilk. Leslie
has depicted the fight; Hodgson has imagined the scene, "After the Fight"
- George, the work done, enjoying his pint of beer.
Day, the author of SANDFORD AND MERTON, lived and - more credit to the
place still - was killed at Wargrave. In the church is a memorial to
Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at
Easter, between two boys and two girls who "have never been undutiful to
their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to
steal, or to break windows." Fancy giving up all that for five shillings
a year! It is not worth it.
It is rumoured in the town that once, many years ago, a boy appeared who
really never had done these things - or at all events, which was all that
was required or could be expected, had never been known to do them - and
thus won the crown of glory. He was exhibited for three weeks afterwards
in the Town Hall, under a glass case.
What has become of the money since no one knows. They say it is always
handed over to the nearest wax-works show.
Shiplake is a pretty village, but it cannot be seen from the river, being
upon the hill. Tennyson was married in Shiplake Church.
The river up to Sonning winds in and out through many islands, and is
very placid, hushed, and lonely. Few folk, except at twilight, a pair or
two of rustic lovers, walk along its banks. `Arry and Lord Fitznoodle
have been left behind at Henley, and dismal, dirty Reading is not yet
reached. It is a part of the river in which to dream of bygone days, and
vanished forms and faces, and things that might have been, but are not,
We got out at Sonning, and went for a walk round the village. It is the
most fairy-like little nook on the whole river. It is more like a stage
village than one built of bricks and mortar. Every house is smothered in
roses, and now, in early June, they were bursting forth in clouds of
dainty splendour. If you stop at Sonning, put up at the "Bull," behind
the church. It is a veritable picture of an old country inn, with green,
square courtyard in front, where, on seats beneath the trees, the old men
group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics;
with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, and awkward stairs and
We roamed about sweet Sonning for an hour or so, and then, it being too
late to push on past Reading, we decided to go back to one of the
Shiplake islands, and put up there for the night. It was still early
when we got settled, and George said that, as we had plenty of time, it
would be a splendid opportunity to try a good, slap-up supper. He said
he would show us what could be done up the river in the way of cooking,
and suggested that, with the vegetables and the remains of the cold beef
and general odds and ends, we should make an Irish stew.
It seemed a fascinating idea. George gathered wood and made a fire, and
Harris and I started to peel the potatoes. I should never have thought
that peeling potatoes was such an undertaking. The job turned out to be
the biggest thing of its kind that I had ever been in. We began
cheerfully, one might almost say skittishly, but our light-heartedness
was gone by the time the first potato was finished. The more we peeled,
the more peel there seemed to be left on; by the time we had got all the
peel off and all the eyes out, there was no potato left - at least none
worth speaking of. George came and had a look at it - it was about the
size of a pea-nut. He said:
"Oh, that won't do! You're wasting them. You must scrape them."
So we scraped them, and that was harder work than peeling. They are such
an extraordinary shape, potatoes - all bumps and warts and hollows. We
worked steadily for five-and-twenty minutes, and did four potatoes. Then
we struck. We said we should require the rest of the evening for
I never saw such a thing as potato-scraping for making a fellow in a
mess. It seemed difficult to believe that the potato-scrapings in which
Harris and I stood, half smothered, could have come off four potatoes.
It shows you what can be done with economy and care.
George said it was absurd to have only four potatoes in an Irish stew, so
we washed half-a-dozen or so more, and put them in without peeling. We
also put in a cabbage and about half a peck of peas. George stirred it
all up, and then he said that there seemed to be a lot of room to spare,
so we overhauled both the hampers, and picked out all the odds and ends
and the remnants, and added them to the stew. There were half a pork pie
and a bit of cold boiled bacon left, and we put them in. Then George
found half a tin of potted salmon, and he emptied that into the pot.
He said that was the advantage of Irish stew: you got rid of such a lot
of things. I fished out a couple of eggs that had got cracked, and put
those in. George said they would thicken the gravy.
I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I
remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great
interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and
thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-
rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his
contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a
genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.
We had a discussion as to whether the rat should go in or not. Harris
said that he thought it would be all right, mixed up with the other
things, and that every little helped; but George stood up for precedent.
He said he had never heard of water-rats in Irish stew, and he would
rather be on the safe side, and not try experiments.
"If you never try a new thing, how can you tell what it's like? It's men
such as you that hamper the world's progress. Think of the man who first
tried German sausage!"
It was a great success, that Irish stew. I don't think I ever enjoyed a
meal more. There was something so fresh and piquant about it. One's
palate gets so tired of the old hackneyed things: here was a dish with a
new flavour, with a taste like nothing else on earth.
And it was nourishing, too. As George said, there was good stuff in it.
The peas and potatoes might have been a bit softer, but we all had good
teeth, so that did not matter much: and as for the gravy, it was a poem -
a little too rich, perhaps, for a weak stomach, but nutritious.
We finished up with tea and cherry tart. Montmorency had a fight with
the kettle during tea-time, and came off a poor second.
Throughout the trip, he had manifested great curiosity concerning the
kettle. He would sit and watch it, as it boiled, with a puzzled
expression, and would try and rouse it every now and then by growling at
it. When it began to splutter and steam, he regarded it as a challenge,
and would want to fight it, only, at that precise moment, some one would
always dash up and bear off his prey before he could get at it.
To-day he determined he would be beforehand. At the first sound the
kettle made, he rose, growling, and advanced towards it in a threatening
attitude. It was only a little kettle, but it was full of pluck, and it
up and spit at him.
"Ah! would ye!" growled Montmorency, showing his teeth; "I'll teach ye to
cheek a hard-working, respectable dog; ye miserable, long-nosed, dirty-
looking scoundrel, ye. Come on!"
And he rushed at that poor little kettle, and seized it by the spout.
Then, across the evening stillness, broke a blood-curdling yelp, and
Montmorency left the boat, and did a constitutional three times round the
island at the rate of thirty-five miles an hour, stopping every now and
then to bury his nose in a bit of cool mud.
From that day Montmorency regarded the kettle with a mixture of awe,
suspicion, and hate. Whenever he saw it he would growl and back at a
rapid rate, with his tail shut down, and the moment it was put upon the
stove he would promptly climb out of the boat, and sit on the bank, till
the whole tea business was over.
George got out his banjo after supper, and wanted to play it, but Harris
objected: he said he had got a headache, and did not feel strong enough
to stand it. George thought the music might do him good - said music
often soothed the nerves and took away a headache; and he twanged two or
three notes, just to show Harris what it was like.
Harris said he would rather have the headache.
George has never learned to play the banjo to this day. He has had too
much all-round discouragement to meet. He tried on two or three
evenings, while we were up the river, to get a little practice, but it
was never a success. Harris's language used to be enough to unnerve any
man; added to which, Montmorency would sit and howl steadily, right
through the performance. It was not giving the man a fair chance.
"What's he want to howl like that for when I'm playing?" George would
exclaim indignantly, while taking aim at him with a boot.
"What do you want to play like that for when he is howling?" Harris would
retort, catching the boot. "You let him alone. He can't help howling.
He's got a musical ear, and your playing MAKES him howl."
So George determined to postpone study of the banjo until he reached
home. But he did not get much opportunity even there. Mrs. P. used to
come up and say she was very sorry - for herself, she liked to hear him -
but the lady upstairs was in a very delicate state, and the doctor was
afraid it might injure the child.
Then George tried taking it out with him late at night, and practising
round the square. But the inhabitants complained to the police about it,
and a watch was set for him one night, and he was captured. The evidence
against him was very clear, and he was bound over to keep the peace for
He seemed to lose heart in the business after that. He did make one or
two feeble efforts to take up the work again when the six months had
elapsed, but there was always the same coldness - the same want of
sympathy on the part of the world to fight against; and, after awhile, he
despaired altogether, and advertised the instrument for sale at a great
sacrifice - "owner having no further use for same" - and took to learning
card tricks instead.
It must be disheartening work learning a musical instrument. You would
think that Society, for its own sake, would do all it could to assist a
man to acquire the art of playing a musical instrument. But it doesn't!
I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes, and
you would be surprised at the amount of opposition he had to contend
with. Why, not even from the members of his own family did he receive
what you could call active encouragement. His father was dead against
the business from the beginning, and spoke quite unfeelingly on the
My friend used to get up early in the morning to practise, but he had to
give that plan up, because of his sister. She was somewhat religiously
inclined, and she said it seemed such an awful thing to begin the day
So he sat up at night instead, and played after the family had gone to
bed, but that did not do, as it got the house such a bad name. People,
going home late, would stop outside to listen, and then put it about all
over the town, the next morning, that a fearful murder had been committed
at Mr. Jefferson's the night before; and would describe how they had
heard the victim's shrieks and the brutal oaths and curses of the
murderer, followed by the prayer for mercy, and the last dying gurgle of
So they let him practise in the day-time, in the back-kitchen with all
the doors shut; but his more successful passages could generally be heard
in the sitting-room, in spite of these precautions, and would affect his
mother almost to tears.
She said it put her in mind of her poor father (he had been swallowed by
a shark, poor man, while bathing off the coast of New Guinea - where the
connection came in, she could not explain).
Then they knocked up a little place for him at the bottom of the garden,
about quarter of a mile from the house, and made him take the machine
down there when he wanted to work it; and sometimes a visitor would come
to the house who knew nothing of the matter, and they would forget to
tell him all about it, and caution him, and he would go out for a stroll
round the garden and suddenly get within earshot of those bagpipes,
without being prepared for it, or knowing what it was. If he were a man
of strong mind, it only gave him fits; but a person of mere average
intellect it usually sent mad.
There is, it must be confessed, something very sad about the early
efforts of an amateur in bagpipes. I have felt that myself when
listening to my young friend. They appear to be a trying instrument to
perform upon. You have to get enough breath for the whole tune before
you start - at least, so I gathered from watching Jefferson.
He would begin magnificently with a wild, full, come-to-the-battle sort
of a note, that quite roused you. But he would get more and more piano
as he went on, and the last verse generally collapsed in the middle with
a splutter and a hiss.
You want to be in good health to play the bagpipes.
Young Jefferson only learnt to play one tune on those bagpipes; but I
never heard any complaints about the insufficiency of his repertoire -
none whatever. This tune was "The Campbells are Coming, Hooray -
Hooray!" so he said, though his father always held that it was "The Blue
Bells of Scotland." Nobody seemed quite sure what it was exactly, but
they all agreed that it sounded Scotch.
Strangers were allowed three guesses, and most of them guessed a
different tune each time.
Harris was disagreeable after supper, - I think it must have been the
stew that had upset him: he is not used to high living, - so George and I
left him in the boat, and settled to go for a mouch round Henley. He
said he should have a glass of whisky and a pipe, and fix things up for
the night. We were to shout when we returned, and he would row over from
the island and fetch us.
"Don't go to sleep, old man," we said as we started.
"Not much fear of that while this stew's on," he grunted, as he pulled
back to the island.
Henley was getting ready for the regatta, and was full of bustle. We met
a goodish number of men we knew about the town, and in their pleasant
company the time slipped by somewhat quickly; so that it was nearly
eleven o'clock before we set off on our four-mile walk home - as we had
learned to call our little craft by this time.
It was a dismal night, coldish, with a thin rain falling; and as we
trudged through the dark, silent fields, talking low to each other, and
wondering if we were going right or not, we thought of the cosy boat,
with the bright light streaming through the tight-drawn canvas; of Harris
and Montmorency, and the whisky, and wished that we were there.
We conjured up the picture of ourselves inside, tired and a little
hungry; of the gloomy river and the shapeless trees; and, like a giant
glow-worm underneath them, our dear old boat, so snug and warm and
cheerful. We could see ourselves at supper there, pecking away at cold
meat, and passing each other chunks of bread; we could hear the cheery
clatter of our knives, the laughing voices, filling all the space, and
overflowing through the opening out into the night. And we hurried on to
realise the vision.
We struck the tow-path at length, and that made us happy; because prior
to this we had not been sure whether we were walking towards the river or
away from it, and when you are tired and want to go to bed uncertainties
like that worry you. We passed Skiplake as the clock was striking the
quarter to twelve; and then George said, thoughtfully:
"You don't happen to remember which of the islands it was, do you?"
"No," I replied, beginning to grow thoughtful too, "I don't. How many
"Only four," answered George. "It will be all right, if he's awake."
"And if not?" I queried; but we dismissed that train of thought.
We shouted when we came opposite the first island, but there was no
response; so we went to the second, and tried there, and obtained the
"Oh! I remember now," said George; "it was the third one."
And we ran on hopefully to the third one, and hallooed.
The case was becoming serious. it was now past midnight. The hotels at
Skiplake and Henley would be crammed; and we could not go round, knocking
up cottagers and householders in the middle of the night, to know if they
let apartments! George suggested walking back to Henley and assaulting a
policeman, and so getting a night's lodging in the station-house. But
then there was the thought, "Suppose he only hits us back and refuses to
lock us up!"
We could not pass the whole night fighting policemen. Besides, we did
not want to overdo the thing and get six months.
We despairingly tried what seemed in the darkness to be the fourth
island, but met with no better success. The rain was coming down fast
now, and evidently meant to last. We were wet to the skin, and cold and
miserable. We began to wonder whether there were only four islands or
more, or whether we were near the islands at all, or whether we were
anywhere within a mile of where we ought to be, or in the wrong part of
the river altogether; everything looked so strange and different in the
darkness. We began to understand the sufferings of the Babes in the
Just when we had given up all hope - yes, I know that is always the time
that things do happen in novels and tales; but I can't help it. I
resolved, when I began to write this book, that I would be strictly
truthful in all things; and so I will be, even if I have to employ
hackneyed phrases for the purpose.
It WAS just when we had given up all hope, and I must therefore say so.
Just when we had given up all hope, then, I suddenly caught sight, a
little way below us, of a strange, weird sort of glimmer flickering among
the trees on the opposite bank. For an instant I thought of ghosts: it
was such a shadowy, mysterious light. The next moment it flashed across
me that it was our boat, and I sent up such a yell across the water that
made the night seem to shake in its bed.
We waited breathless for a minute, and then - oh! divinest music of the
darkness! - we heard the answering bark of Montmorency. We shouted back
loud enough to wake the Seven Sleepers - I never could understand myself
why it should take more noise to wake seven sleepers than one - and,
after what seemed an hour, but what was really, I suppose, about five
minutes, we saw the lighted boat creeping slowly over the blackness, and
heard Harris's sleepy voice asking where we were.
There was an unaccountable strangeness about Harris. It was something
more than mere ordinary tiredness. He pulled the boat against a part of
the bank from which it was quite impossible for us to get into it, and
immediately went to sleep. It took us an immense amount of screaming and
roaring to wake him up again and put some sense into him; but we
succeeded at last, and got safely on board.
Harris had a sad expression on him, so we noticed, when we got into the
boat. He gave you the idea of a man who had been through trouble. We
asked him if anything had happened, and he said-
It seemed we had moored close to a swan's nest, and, soon after George
and I had gone, the female swan came back, and kicked up a row about it.
Harris had chivied her off, and she had gone away, and fetched up her old
man. Harris said he had had quite a fight with these two swans; but
courage and skill had prevailed in the end, and he had defeated them.
Half-an-hour afterwards they returned with eighteen other swans! It must
have been a fearful battle, so far as we could understand Harris's
account of it. The swans had tried to drag him and Montmorency out of
the boat and drown them; and he had defended himself like a hero for four
hours, and had killed the lot, and they had all paddled away to die.
"How many swans did you say there were?" asked George.
"Thirty-two," replied Harris, sleepily.
"You said eighteen just now," said George.
"No, I didn't," grunted Harris; "I said twelve. Think I can't count?"
What were the real facts about these swans we never found out. We
questioned Harris on the subject in the morning, and he said, "What
swans?" and seemed to think that George and I had been dreaming.
Oh, how delightful it was to be safe in the boat, after our trials and
fears! We ate a hearty supper, George and I, and we should have had some
toddy after it, if we could have found the whisky, but we could not. We
examined Harris as to what he had done with it; but he did not seem to
know what we meant by "whisky," or what we were talking about at all.
Montmorency looked as if he knew something, but said nothing.
I slept well that night, and should have slept better if it had not been
for Harris. I have a vague recollection of having been woke up at least
a dozen times during the night by Harris wandering about the boat with
the lantern, looking for his clothes. He seemed to be worrying about his
clothes all night.
Twice he routed up George and myself to see if we were lying on his
trousers. George got quite wild the second time.
"What the thunder do you want your trousers for, in the middle of the
night?" he asked indignantly. "Why don't you lie down, and go to sleep?"
I found him in trouble, the next time I awoke, because he could not find
his socks; and my last hazy remembrance is of being rolled over on my
side, and of hearing Harris muttering something about its being an
extraordinary thing where his umbrella could have got to.