OXFORD. - MONTMORENCY'S IDEA OF HEAVEN. - THE HIRED UP-RIVER BOAT, ITS
BEAUTIES AND ADVANTAGES. - THE "PRIDE OF THE THAMES." - THE WEATHER
CHANGES. - THE RIVER UNDER DIFFERENT ASPECTS. - NOT A CHEERFUL EVENING. -
YEARNINGS FOR THE UNATTAINABLE. - THE CHEERY CHAT GOES ROUND. - GEORGE
PERFORMS UPON THE BANJO. - A MOURNFUL MELODY. - ANOTHER WET DAY. -
FLIGHT. - A LITTLE SUPPER AND A TOAST.
WE spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in
the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and
fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.
Among folk too constitutionally weak, or too constitutionally lazy,
whichever it may be, to relish up-stream work, it is a common practice to
get a boat at Oxford, and row down. For the energetic, however, the up-
stream journey is certainly to be preferred. It does not seem good to be
always going with the current. There is more satisfaction in squaring
one's back, and fighting against it, and winning one's way forward in
spite of it - at least, so I feel, when Harris and George are sculling
and I am steering.
To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would
say, take your own boat - unless, of course, you can take someone else's
without any possible danger of being found out. The boats that, as a
rule, are let for hire on the Thames above Marlow, are very good boats.
They are fairly water-tight; and so long as they are handled with care,
they rarely come to pieces, or sink. There are places in them to sit
down on, and they are complete with all the necessary arrangements - or
nearly all - to enable you to row them and steer them.
But they are not ornamental. The boat you hire up the river above Marlow
is not the sort of boat in which you can flash about and give yourself
airs. The hired up-river boat very soon puts a stop to any nonsense of
that sort on the part of its occupants. That is its chief - one may say,
its only recommendation.
The man in the hired up-river boat is modest and retiring. He likes to
keep on the shady side, underneath the trees, and to do most of his
travelling early in the morning or late at night, when there are not many
people about on the river to look at him.
When the man in the hired up-river boat sees anyone he knows, he gets out
on to the bank, and hides behind a tree.
I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few
days' trip. We had none of us ever seen the hired up-river boat before;
and we did not know what it was when we did see it.
We had written for a boat - a double sculling skiff; and when we went
down with our bags to the yard, and gave our names, the man said:
"Oh, yes; you're the party that wrote for a double sculling skiff. It's
all right. Jim, fetch round THE PRIDE OF THE THAMES."
The boy went, and re-appeared five minutes afterwards, struggling with an
antediluvian chunk of wood, that looked as though it had been recently
dug out of somewhere, and dug out carelessly, so as to have been
unnecessarily damaged in the process.
My own idea, on first catching sight of the object, was that it was a
Roman relic of some sort, - relic of WHAT I do not know, possibly of a
The neighbourhood of the upper Thames is rich in Roman relics, and my
surmise seemed to me a very probable one; but our serious young man, who
is a bit of a geologist, pooh-poohed my Roman relic theory, and said it
was clear to the meanest intellect (in which category he seemed to be
grieved that he could not conscientiously include mine) that the thing
the boy had found was the fossil of a whale; and he pointed out to us
various evidences proving that it must have belonged to the preglacial
To settle the dispute, we appealed to the boy. We told him not to be
afraid, but to speak the plain truth: Was it the fossil of a pre-Adamite
whale, or was it an early Roman coffin?
The boy said it was THE PRIDE OF THE THAMES.
We thought this a very humorous answer on the part of the boy at first,
and somebody gave him twopence as a reward for his ready wit; but when he
persisted in keeping up the joke, as we thought, too long, we got vexed
"Come, come, my lad!" said our captain sharply, "don't let us have any
nonsense. You take your mother's washing-tub home again, and bring us a
The boat-builder himself came up then, and assured us, on his word, as a
practical man, that the thing really was a boat - was, in fact, THE boat,
the "double sculling skiff" selected to take us on our trip down the
We grumbled a good deal. We thought he might, at least, have had it
whitewashed or tarred - had SOMETHING done to it to distinguish it from a
bit of a wreck; but he could not see any fault in it.
He even seemed offended at our remarks. He said he had picked us out the
best boat in all his stock, and he thought we might have been more
He said it, THE PRIDE OF THE THAMES, had been in use, just as it now
stood (or rather as it now hung together), for the last forty years, to
his knowledge, and nobody had complained of it before, and he did not see
why we should be the first to begin.
We argued no more.
We fastened the so-called boat together with some pieces of string, got a
bit of wall-paper and pasted over the shabbier places, said our prayers,
and stepped on board.
They charged us thirty-five shillings for the loan of the remnant for six
days; and we could have bought the thing out-and-out for four-and-
sixpence at any sale of drift-wood round the coast.
The weather changed on the third day, - Oh! I am talking about our
present trip now, - and we started from Oxford upon our homeward journey
in the midst of a steady drizzle.
The river - with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding
gold the grey-green beech- trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood
paths, chasing shadows o'er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the
mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs'
white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every
tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the
rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far
sail, making soft the air with glory - is a golden fairy stream.
But the river - chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on
its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in
some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in
their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts
with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts
of friends neglected - is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain
Sunlight is the life-blood of Nature. Mother Earth looks at us with such
dull, soulless eyes, when the sunlight has died away from out of her. It
makes us sad to be with her then; she does not seem to know us or to care
for us. She is as a widow who has lost the husband she loved, and her
children touch her hand, and look up into her eyes, but gain no smile
We rowed on all that day through the rain, and very melancholy work it
was. We pretended, at first, that we enjoyed it. We said it was a
change, and that we liked to see the river under all its different
aspects. We said we could not expect to have it all sunshine, nor should
we wish it. We told each other that Nature was beautiful, even in her
Indeed, Harris and I were quite enthusiastic about the business, for the
first few hours. And we sang a song about a gipsy's life, and how
delightful a gipsy's existence was! - free to storm and sunshine, and to
every wind that blew! - and how he enjoyed the rain, and what a lot of
good it did him; and how he laughed at people who didn't like it.
George took the fun more soberly, and stuck to the umbrella.
We hoisted the cover before we had lunch, and kept it up all the
afternoon, just leaving a little space in the bow, from which one of us
could paddle and keep a look-out. In this way we made nine miles, and
pulled up for the night a little below Day's Lock.
I cannot honestly say that we had a merry evening. The rain poured down
with quiet persistency. Everything in the boat was damp and clammy.
Supper was not a success. Cold veal pie, when you don't feel hungry, is
apt to cloy. I felt I wanted whitebait and a cutlet; Harris babbled of
soles and white-sauce, and passed the remains of his pie to Montmorency,
who declined it, and, apparently insulted by the offer, went and sat over
at the other end of the boat by himself.
George requested that we would not talk about these things, at all events
until he had finished his cold boiled beef without mustard.
We played penny nap after supper. We played for about an hour and a
half, by the end of which time George had won fourpence - George always
is lucky at cards - and Harris and I had lost exactly twopence each.
We thought we would give up gambling then. As Harris said, it breeds an
unhealthy excitement when carried too far. George offered to go on and
give us our revenge; but Harris and I decided not to battle any further
After that, we mixed ourselves some toddy, and sat round and talked.
George told us about a man he had known, who had come up the river two
years ago and who had slept out in a damp boat on just such another night
as that was, and it had given him rheumatic fever, and nothing was able
to save him, and he had died in great agony ten days afterwards. George
said he was quite a young man, and was engaged to be married. He said it
was one of the saddest things he had ever known.
And that put Harris in mind of a friend of his, who had been in the
Volunteers, and who had slept out under canvas one wet night down at
Aldershot, "on just such another night as this," said Harris; and he had
woke up in the morning a cripple for life. Harris said he would
introduce us both to the man when we got back to town; it would make our
hearts bleed to see him.
This naturally led to some pleasant chat about sciatica, fevers, chills,
lung diseases, and bronchitis; and Harris said how very awkward it would
be if one of us were taken seriously ill in the night, seeing how far
away we were from a doctor.
There seemed to be a desire for something frolicksome to follow upon this
conversation, and in a weak moment I suggested that George should get out
his banjo, and see if he could not give us a comic song.
I will say for George that he did not want any pressing. There was no
nonsense about having left his music at home, or anything of that sort.
He at once fished out his instrument, and commenced to play "Two Lovely
I had always regarded "Two Lovely Black Eyes" as rather a commonplace
tune until that evening. The rich vein of sadness that George extracted
from it quite surprised me.
The desire that grew upon Harris and myself, as the mournful strains
progressed, was to fall upon each other's necks and weep; but by great
effort we kept back the rising tears, and listened to the wild yearnful
melody in silence.
When the chorus came we even made a desperate effort to be merry. We re-
filled our glasses and joined in; Harris, in a voice trembling with
emotion, leading, and George and I following a few words behind:
"Two lovely black eyes;
Oh! what a surprise!
Only for telling a man he was wrong,
Two - "
There we broke down. The unutterable pathos of George's accompaniment to
that "two" we were, in our then state of depression, unable to bear.
Harris sobbed like a little child, and the dog howled till I thought his
heart or his jaw must surely break.
George wanted to go on with another verse. He thought that when he had
got a little more into the tune, and could throw more "abandon," as it
were, into the rendering, it might not seem so sad. The feeling of the
majority, however, was opposed to the experiment.
There being nothing else to do, we went to bed - that is, we undressed
ourselves, and tossed about at the bottom of the boat for some three or
four hours. After which, we managed to get some fitful slumber until
five a.m., when we all got up and had breakfast.
The second day was exactly like the first. The rain continued to pour
down, and we sat, wrapped up in our mackintoshes, underneath the canvas,
and drifted slowly down.
One of us - I forget which one now, but I rather think it was myself -
made a few feeble attempts during the course of the morning to work up
the old gipsy foolishness about being children of Nature and enjoying the
wet; but it did not go down well at all. That -
"I care not for the rain, not I!"
was so painfully evident, as expressing the sentiments of each of us,
that to sing it seemed unnecessary.
On one point we were all agreed, and that was that, come what might, we
would go through with this job to the bitter end. We had come out for a
fortnight's enjoyment on the river, and a fortnight's enjoyment on the
river we meant to have. If it killed us! well, that would be a sad thing
for our friends and relations, but it could not be helped. We felt that
to give in to the weather in a climate such as ours would be a most
"It's only two days more," said Harris, "and we are young and strong. We
may get over it all right, after all."
At about four o'clock we began to discuss our arrangements for the
evening. We were a little past Goring then, and we decided to paddle on
to Pangbourne, and put up there for the night.
"Another jolly evening!" murmured George.
We sat and mused on the prospect. We should be in at Pangbourne by five.
We should finish dinner at, say, half-past six. After that we could walk
about the village in the pouring rain until bed-time; or we could sit in
a dimly-lit bar-parlour and read the almanac.
"Why, the Alhambra would be almost more lively," said Harris, venturing
his head outside the cover for a moment and taking a survey of the sky.
"With a little supper at the - * to follow," I added, half unconsciously.
* A capital little out-of-the-way restaurant, in the neighbourhood of - ,
where you can get one of the best-cooked and cheapest little French
dinners or suppers that I know of, with an excellent bottle of Beaune,
for three-and-six; and which I am not going to be idiot enough to
"Yes it's almost a pity we've made up our minds to stick to this boat,"
answered Harris; and then there was silence for a while.
"If we HADN'T made up our minds to contract our certain deaths in this
bally old coffin," observed George, casting a glance of intense
malevolence over the boat, "it might be worth while to mention that
there's a train leaves Pangbourne, I know, soon after five, which would
just land us in town in comfortable time to get a chop, and then go on to
the place you mentioned afterwards."
Nobody spoke. We looked at one another, and each one seemed to see his
own mean and guilty thoughts reflected in the faces of the others. In
silence, we dragged out and overhauled the Gladstone. We looked up the
river and down the river; not a soul was in sight!
Twenty minutes later, three figures, followed by a shamed-looking dog,
might have been seen creeping stealthily from the boat-house at the
"Swan" towards the railway station, dressed in the following neither neat
nor gaudy costume:
Black leather shoes, dirty; suit of boating flannels, very dirty; brown
felt hat, much battered; mackintosh, very wet; umbrella.
We had deceived the boatman at Pangbourne. We had not had the face to
tell him that we were running away from the rain. We had left the boat,
and all it contained, in his charge, with instructions that it was to be
ready for us at nine the next morning. If, we said - IF anything
unforeseen should happen, preventing our return, we would write to him.
We reached Paddington at seven, and drove direct to the restaurant I have
before described, where we partook of a light meal, left Montmorency,
together with suggestions for a supper to be ready at half-past ten, and
then continued our way to Leicester Square.
We attracted a good deal of attention at the Alhambra. On our presenting
ourselves at the paybox we were gruffly directed to go round to Castle
Street, and were informed that we were half-an-hour behind our time.
We convinced the man, with some difficulty, that we were NOT "the world-
renowned contortionists from the Himalaya Mountains," and he took our
money and let us pass.
Inside we were a still greater success. Our fine bronzed countenances
and picturesque clothes were followed round the place with admiring gaze.
We were the cynosure of every eye.
It was a proud moment for us all.
We adjourned soon after the first ballet, and wended our way back to the
restaurant, where supper was already awaiting us.
I must confess to enjoying that supper. For about ten days we seemed to
have been living, more or less, on nothing but cold meat, cake, and bread
and jam. It had been a simple, a nutritious diet; but there had been
nothing exciting about it, and the odour of Burgundy, and the smell of
French sauces, and the sight of clean napkins and long loaves, knocked as
a very welcome visitor at the door of our inner man.
We pegged and quaffed away in silence for a while, until the time came
when, instead of sitting bolt upright, and grasping the knife and fork
firmly, we leant back in our chairs and worked slowly and carelessly -
when we stretched out our legs beneath the table, let our napkins fall,
unheeded, to the floor, and found time to more critically examine the
smoky ceiling than we had hitherto been able to do - when we rested our
glasses at arm's-length upon the table, and felt good, and thoughtful,
Then Harris, who was sitting next the window, drew aside the curtain and
looked out upon the street.
It glistened darkly in the wet, the dim lamps flickered with each gust,
the rain splashed steadily into the puddles and trickled down the water-
spouts into the running gutters. A few soaked wayfarers hurried past,
crouching beneath their dripping umbrellas, the women holding up their
"Well," said Harris, reaching his hand out for his glass, "we have had a
pleasant trip, and my hearty thanks for it to old Father Thames - but I
think we did well to chuck it when we did. Here's to Three Men well out
of a Boat!"
And Montmorency, standing on his hind legs, before the window, peering
out into the night, gave a short bark of decided concurrence with the