Read CHAPTER II. A Midnight Voyage of London River, free online book, by H. M. Tomlinson, on

Our voyage was to begin at midnight from near Limehouse Hole. The hour and the place have been less promising in the beginning of many a strange adventure. Where the voyage would end could not be said, except that it would be in Bugsby’s Reach, and at some time or other. It was now ten o’clock, getting towards sailing time, and the way to the foreshore was unlighted and devious. Yet it was somewhere near. This area of still and empty night railed off from the glare of the Commercial Road would be Limehouse Church. It is foolish to suppose you know the Tower Hamlets because you have seen them by day. They change. They are like those uncanny folk of the fables. At night, wonderfully, they become something else, take another form, which has never been more than glimpsed, and another character, so fabulous and secret that it will support the tales of the wildest romanticist, who rightly feels that if such yarns were told of ’Frisco or Timbuctoo they might get found out. Was this the church? Three Chinamen were disputing by its gate. Perhaps they were in disagreement as to where the church would be in daylight.

At a corner where the broad main channel of electric light ended, and perplexity began, a policeman stood, and directed me into chaos. “Anywhere,” he explained, “anywhere down there will do.” I saw a narrow alley in the darkness, which had one gas lamp and many cobbled stones. At the bottom of the lane were three iron posts. Beyond the posts a bracket lamp showed a brick wall, and in the wall was an arch so full of gloom that it seemed impassable, except to a steady draught of cold air that might have been the midnight itself entering Limehouse from its own place. At the far end of that opening in the wall was nothing. I stood on an invisible wooden platform and looked into nothing with no belief that a voyage could begin from there. Before me then should have been the Thames, at the top of the flood tide. It was not seen. There was only a black void dividing some clusters of brilliant but remote and diminished lights. There were odd stars which detached themselves from the fixed clusters, and moved in the void, sounding the profundity of the chasm beneath them with lines of trembling fire. Such a wandering comet drifted near where I stood on the verge of nothing, and then it was plain that its trail of quivering light did not sound, but floated and undulated on a travelling road that chasm before me was black because it was filled with fluid night. Night, I discovered suddenly, was in irresistible movement. It was swift and heavy. It was unconfined. It was welling higher to douse our feeble glims and to founder London, built of shadows on its boundary. It moved with frightful quietness. It seemed confident of its power. It swirled and eddied by the piles of the wharf, and there it found a voice, though that was muffled; yet now and then it broke into levity for a moment, as at some shrouded and alien jest.

There were sounds which reached me at last from the opposite shore, faint with distance and terror. The warning from an unseen steamer going out was as if a soul, crossing this Styx, now knew all. There is no London on the Thames, after sundown. Most of us know very little of the River by day. It might then be no more native to our capital than the Orientals who stand under the Limehouse gas lamps at night. It surprises us. We turn and look at it from our seat in a tram, and watch a barge going down on the ebb it luckily misses the piers of Blackfriars Bridge as if a door had unexpectedly opened on a mystery, revealing another world in London, and another sort of life than ours. It is as uncanny as if we had sensed another dimension of space. The tram gets among the buildings again, and we are reassured by the confined and arid life we know. But what a light and width had that surprising world where we saw a barge drifting as leisurely as though the narrow limits which we call reality were there unknown!

But after dark there is not only no River, when you stand where by day is its foreshore; there is no London. Then, looking out from Limehouse, you might be the only surviving memory of a city that has vanished. You might be solitary among the unsubstantial shades, for about you are only comets passing through space, and inscrutable shapes; your neighbours are Cassiopeia and the Great Bear.

But where was our barge, the Lizzie? I became aware abruptly of the skipper of this ship for our midnight voyage among the stars. He had his coat-collar raised. The Lizzie, he said, was now free of the mud, and he was going to push off. Sitting on a bollard, and pulling out his tobacco-pouch, he said he hadn’t had her out before. Sorry he’d got to do it now. She was a bitch. She bucked her other man overboard three days ago. They hadn’t found him yet. They found her down by Gallions Reach. Jack Jones was the other chap. Old Rarzo they called him. Took more than a little to give him that colour. But he was All Right. They were going to give a benefit concert for his wife and kids. Jack’s brother was going to sing; good as Harry Lauder, he is.

Below us a swirl of water broke into mirth, instantly suppressed. We could see the Lizzie now. The ripples slipped round her to the tune of they-’avn’t-found-’im-yet, they-’avn’t-found-’im-yet-they ’avn’t. The skipper and crew rose, fumbling at his feet for a rope. There did not seem to be much of the Lizzie. She was but a little raft to drift out on those tides which move among the stars. “Now’s your chance,” said her crew, and I took it, on all fours. The last remnant of London was then pushed from us with a pole. We were launched on night, which had begun its ebb towards morning.

The punt sidled away obliquely for mid-stream. I stood at one end of it. The figure of Charon could be seen at the other, of long acquaintance with this passage, using his sweep with the indifference of habitude. Perhaps it was not Charon. Yet there was some obstruction to the belief that we were bound for no more than the steamer Aldebaran, anchored in Bugsby’s Reach. From the low deck of the barge it was surprising that the River, whose name was Night, was content with the height to which it had risen. Perhaps it was taking its time. It might soon receive an influx from space, rise then in a silent upheaval, and those low shadows that were London, even now half foundered, would at once go. This darkness was an irresponsible power. It was the same flood which had sunk Knossos and Memphis. It was tranquil, indifferent, knowing us not, reckoning us all one with the Sumerians. They were below it. It had risen above them. Now the time had come when it was laving the base of London.

The crew cried out to us that over there was the entrance to the West India Dock. We knew that place in another life. But should Charon joke with us? We saw only chaos, in which the beams from a reputed city glimmered without purpose.

The shadow of the master of our black barge pulled at his sweep with a slow confidence that was fearful amid what was sightless and unknown. His pipe glowed, as with the profanity of an immortal to whom eternity and infinity are of the usual significance. Then a red and green eye appeared astern, and there was a steady throbbing as if some monster were in pursuit of us. A tug shaped near us, drew level, and exposed with its fires, as it went ahead, a radiant Lizzie on an area of water that leaped in red flames. The furnace door of the tug was shut, and at once we were blind. “Hold hard,” yelled our skipper, and the Lizzie slipped into the turmoil of the tug’s wake.

There would be Millwall. The tug and the turmoil had gone. We were alone again in the beyond. There was no sound now but the water spattering under our craft, and the fumbling and infrequent splash of the sweep. Once we heard the miniature bark of a dog, distinct and fine, as though distance had refined it as well as reduced it. We were nearly round the loop the River makes about Millwall, and this unknown region before us was Blackwall Reach by day, and Execution Dock used to be dead ahead. To the east, over the waters, red light exploded fan-wise and pulsed on the clouds latent above, giving them momentary form. It was as though, from the place where it starts, the dawn had been released too soon, and was at once recalled. “The gas works,” said the skipper.

Still the slow drift, quite proper to those at large in eternity. But this, I was told, was the beginning of Bugsby’s Reach. It was first a premonition, then a doubt, and at last a distinct tremor in the darkness ahead of us. A light appeared, grew nearer, higher, and brighter, and there was a suspicion of imminent mass. “Watch her,” warned the skipper. Watch what? There was nothing to watch but the dark and some planets far away, one of them red. The menacing one still grew higher and brighter. It came at us. A wall instantly appeared to overhang us, with a funnel and masts above it, and our skipper’s yell was lost in the thunder of a churning propeller. The air shuddered, and a siren hooted in the heavens. A long, dark body seemed minutes going by us, and our skipper’s insults were taken in silence by her superior deck. She left us riotous in her wake, and we continued our journey dancing our indignation on the uneasy deck of the Lizzie.

The silent drift recommenced, and we neared a region of unearthly lights and the smell of sulphur, where aerial skeletons, vast and black, and columns and towers, alternately glowed and vanished as the doors of infernal fires were opened and shut. We drew abreast of this phantom place where names and darkness battled amid gigantic ruin. Charon spoke. “They’re the coal wharves,” he said.

The lights of a steamer rose in the night below the wharves, but it was our own progress which brought them nearer. She was anchored. We made out at last her shape, but at first she did not answer our hail.

“Hullo, Aldebaran,” once more roared our captain.

There was no answer. In a minute we should be by her, and too late.

“Barge ahoy!” came a voice. “Look out for a line.”