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. - SAVED!
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
"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 tangle.
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
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 a week.
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
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.
George was about to call out and wake them up, but, at that moment, a
bright idea flashed across him, and he didn't. He got the hitcher
instead, and reached over, and drew in the end of the tow-line; and they
made a loop in it, and put it over their mast, and then they tidied up
the sculls, and went and sat down in the stern, and lit their pipes.
And that young man and young woman towed those four hulking chaps and a
heavy boat up to Marlow.
George said he never saw so much thoughtful sadness concentrated into one
glance before, as when, at the lock, that young couple grasped the idea
that, for the last two miles, they had been towing the wrong boat.
George fancied that, if it had not been for the restraining influence of
the sweet woman at his side, the young man might have given way to
The maiden was the first to recover from her surprise, and, when she did,
she clasped her hands, and said, wildly:
"Oh, Henry, then WHERE is auntie?"
"Did they ever recover the old lady?" asked Harris.
George replied he did not know.
Another example of the dangerous want of sympathy between tower and towed
was witnessed by George and myself once up near Walton. It was where the
tow-path shelves gently down into the water, and we were camping on the
opposite bank, noticing things in general. By-and-by a small boat came
in sight, towed through the water at a tremendous pace by a powerful
barge horse, on which sat a very small boy. Scattered about the boat, in
dreamy and reposeful attitudes, lay five fellows, the man who was
steering having a particularly restful appearance.
"I should like to see him pull the wrong line," murmured George, as they
passed. And at that precise moment the man did it, and the boat rushed
up the bank with a noise like the ripping up of forty thousand linen
sheets. Two men, a hamper, and three oars immediately left the boat on
the larboard side, and reclined on the bank, and one and a half moments
afterwards, two other men disembarked from the starboard, and sat down
among boat-hooks and sails and carpet-bags and bottles. The last man
went on twenty yards further, and then got out on his head.
This seemed to sort of lighten the boat, and it went on much easier, the
small boy shouting at the top of his voice, and urging his steed into a
gallop. The fellows sat up and stared at one another. It was some
seconds before they realised what had happened to them, but, when they
did, they began to shout lustily for the boy to stop. He, however, was
too much occupied with the horse to hear them, and we watched them,
flying after him, until the distance hid them from view.
I cannot say I was sorry at their mishap. Indeed, I only wish that all
the young fools who have their boats towed in this fashion - and plenty
do - could meet with similar misfortunes. Besides the risk they run
themselves, they become a danger and an annoyance to every other boat
they pass. Going at the pace they do, it is impossible for them to get
out of anybody else's way, or for anybody else to get out of theirs.
Their line gets hitched across your mast, and overturns you, or it
catches somebody in the boat, and either throws them into the water, or
cuts their face open. The best plan is to stand your ground, and be
prepared to keep them off with the butt-end of a mast.
Of all experiences in connection with towing, the most exciting is being
towed by girls. It is a sensation that nobody ought to miss. It takes
three girls to tow always; two hold the rope, and the other one runs
round and round, and giggles. They generally begin by getting themselves
tied up. They get the line round their legs, and have to sit down on the
path and undo each other, and then they twist it round their necks, and
are nearly strangled. They fix it straight, however, at last, and start
off at a run, pulling the boat along at quite a dangerous pace. At the
end of a hundred yards they are naturally breathless, and suddenly stop,
and all sit down on the grass and laugh, and your boat drifts out to mid-
stream and turns round, before you know what has happened, or can get
hold of a scull. Then they stand up, and are surprised.
"Oh, look!" they say; "he's gone right out into the middle."
They pull on pretty steadily for a bit, after this, and then it all at
once occurs to one of them that she will pin up her frock, and they ease
up for the purpose, and the boat runs aground.
You jump up, and push it off, and you shout to them not to stop.
"Yes. What's the matter?" they shout back.
"Don't stop," you roar.
"Don't stop - go on - go on!"
"Go back, Emily, and see what it is they want," says one; and Emily comes
back, and asks what it is.
"What do you want?" she says; "anything happened?"
" No," you reply, "it's all right; only go on, you know - don't stop."
"Why, we can't steer, if you keep stopping. You must keep some way on
"Keep some what?"
"Some way - you must keep the boat moving."
"Oh, all right, I'll tell `em. Are we doing it all right?"
"Oh, yes, very nicely, indeed, only don't stop."
"It doesn't seem difficult at all. I thought it was so hard."
"Oh, no, it's simple enough. You want to keep on steady at it, that's
"I see. Give me out my red shawl, it's under the cushion."
You find the shawl, and hand it out, and by this time another one has
come back and thinks she will have hers too, and they take Mary's on
chance, and Mary does not want it, so they bring it back and have a
pocket-comb instead. It is about twenty minutes before they get off
again, and, at the next corner, they see a cow, and you have to leave the
boat to chivy the cow out of their way.
There is never a dull moment in the boat while girls are towing it.
George got the line right after a while, and towed us steadily on to
Penton Hook. There we discussed the important question of camping. We
had decided to sleep on board that night, and we had either to lay up
just about there, or go on past Staines. It seemed early to think about
shutting up then, however, with the sun still in the heavens, and we
settled to push straight on for Runnymead, three and a half miles
further, a quiet wooded part of the river, and where there is good
We all wished, however, afterward that we had stopped at Penton Hook.
Three or four miles up stream is a trifle, early in the morning, but it
is a weary pull at the end of a long day. You take no interest in the
scenery during these last few miles. You do not chat and laugh. Every
half-mile you cover seems like two. You can hardly believe you are only
where you are, and you are convinced that the map must be wrong; and,
when you have trudged along for what seems to you at least ten miles, and
still the lock is not in sight, you begin to seriously fear that somebody
must have sneaked it, and run off with it.
I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense,
I mean). I was out with a young lady - cousin on my mother's side - and
we were pulling down to Goring. It was rather late, and we were anxious
to get in - at least SHE was anxious to get in. It was half-past six
when we reached Benson's lock, and dusk was drawing on, and she began to
get excited then. She said she must be in to supper. I said it was a
thing I felt I wanted to be in at, too; and I drew out a map I had with
me to see exactly how far it was. I saw it was just a mile and a half to
the next lock - Wallingford - and five on from there to Cleeve.
"Oh, it's all right!" I said. "We'll be through the next lock before
seven, and then there is only one more;" and I settled down and pulled
We passed the bridge, and soon after that I asked if she saw the lock.
She said no, she did not see any lock; and I said, "Oh!" and pulled on.
Another five minutes went by, and then I asked her to look again.
"No," she said; "I can't see any signs of a lock."
"You - you are sure you know a lock, when you do see one?" I asked
hesitatingly, not wishing to offend her.
The question did offend her, however, and she suggested that I had better
look for myself; so I laid down the sculls, and took a view. The river
stretched out straight before us in the twilight for about a mile; not a
ghost of a lock was to be seen.
"You don't think we have lost our way, do you?" asked my companion.
I did not see how that was possible; though, as I suggested, we might
have somehow got into the weir stream, and be making for the falls.
This idea did not comfort her in the least, and she began to cry. She
said we should both be drowned, and that it was a judgment on her for
coming out with me.
It seemed an excessive punishment, I thought; but my cousin thought not,
and hoped it would all soon be over.
I tried to reassure her, and to make light of the whole affair. I said
that the fact evidently was that I was not rowing as fast as I fancied I
was, but that we should soon reach the lock now; and I pulled on for
Then I began to get nervous myself. I looked again at the map. There
was Wallingford lock, clearly marked, a mile and a half below Benson's.
It was a good, reliable map; and, besides, I recollected the lock myself.
I had been through it twice. Where were we? What had happened to us? I
began to think it must be all a dream, and that I was really asleep in
bed, and should wake up in a minute, and be told it was past ten.
I asked my cousin if she thought it could be a dream, and she replied
that she was just about to ask me the same question; and then we both
wondered if we were both asleep, and if so, who was the real one that was
dreaming, and who was the one that was only a dream; it got quite
I still went on pulling, however, and still no lock came in sight, and
the river grew more and more gloomy and mysterious under the gathering
shadows of night, and things seemed to be getting weird and uncanny. I
thought of hobgoblins and banshees, and will-o'-the-wisps, and those
wicked girls who sit up all night on rocks, and lure people into whirl-
pools and things; and I wished I had been a better man, and knew more
hymns; and in the middle of these reflections I heard the blessed strains
of "He's got `em on," played, badly, on a concertina, and knew that we
I do not admire the tones of a concertina, as a rule; but, oh! how
beautiful the music seemed to us both then - far, far more beautiful than
the voice of Orpheus or the lute of Apollo, or anything of that sort
could have sounded. Heavenly melody, in our then state of mind, would
only have still further harrowed us. A soul-moving harmony, correctly
performed, we should have taken as a spirit-warning, and have given up
all hope. But about the strains of "He's got `em on," jerked
spasmodically, and with involuntary variations, out of a wheezy
accordion, there was something singularly human and reassuring.
The sweet sounds drew nearer, and soon the boat from which they were
worked lay alongside us.
It contained a party of provincial `Arrys and `Arriets, out for a
moonlight sail. (There was not any moon, but that was not their fault.)
I never saw more attractive, lovable people in all my life. I hailed
them, and asked if they could tell me the way to Wallingford lock; and I
explained that I had been looking for it for the last two hours.
"Wallingford lock!" they answered. "Lor' love you, sir, that's been done
away with for over a year. There ain't no Wallingford lock now, sir.
You're close to Cleeve now. Blow me tight if `ere ain't a gentleman been
looking for Wallingford lock, Bill!"
I had never thought of that. I wanted to fall upon all their necks and
bless them; but the stream was running too strong just there to allow of
this, so I had to content myself with mere cold-sounding words of
We thanked them over and over again, and we said it was a lovely night,
and we wished them a pleasant trip, and, I think, I invited them all to
come and spend a week with me, and my cousin said her mother would be so
pleased to see them. And we sang the soldiers' chorus out of FAUST, and
got home in time for supper, after all.