Read CHAPTER VIII. The Illusion of London River, free online book, by H. M. Tomlinson, on

When I came to the house in Malabar Street to which John Williams, master mariner, had retired from the sea, his wife was at her front gate. It was evening, and from the distant River a steamer called. Mrs. Williams did not see me, for her grey head was turned away. She was watching, a little down the street, an officer of the Merchant Service, with his cap set like a challenge, for he was very young, and a demure girl with a market-basket who was with him. They were standing in amused perplexity before their house door. It was a house that had been empty since the foundering of the Drummond Castle. The sailor was searching his pockets for the door-key, and the girl was laughing at his pretended lively nervousness in not finding it. Mrs. Williams had not heard me stop at her elbow, and continued to watch the comedy. She had no children, and she loved young people.

I did not speak, but waited for her to turn, with that ship’s call still sounding in my mind. The rain had cleared for a winter sunset. Opposite, in the house which had been turned into a frugal shop, it was thought so near to night that they lit their lamp, though it was not only possible to see the bottles of sweet-stuff and the bundles of wood in the window, but to make out the large print of a bill stuck to a pane announcing a concert at the Wesleyan Mission Room. The lamp was alight also in the little beer-house next door to it, where the Shipping Gazette could be borrowed, if it were not already out on loan; for children constantly go there for it, with a request from mother, learning their geography that way in Malabar Street, while following a father or a brother round the world and back again, and working out by dead-reckoning whether he would be home for Christmas.

The quiet street, with every house alike, had that air of conscious reserve which is given by the respectable and monotonous; but for a moment then it was bright with the glory of the sky’s afterglow reflected on its wet pavements, as though briefly exalted with an unexpected revelation. The radiance died. Night came, and it was as if the twilight native to the street clouded from its walls and brimmed it with gloom, while yet the sky was bright. The lamplighter set his beacon at the end of the street.

That key had been found. Mrs. Williams laughed to herself, and then saw me. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were there. Did you see that? That lamplighter! When Williams was at sea, and I was alone, it was quite hopeful when the lamplighter did that. It looked like a star. And that Number Ten is let at last. Did you see the young people there? I’m sure they’re newly married. He’s a sailor.”

With the fire, the humming kettle, and the cat between us, and the table laid for tea, Mrs. Williams speculated with interest and hope about those young strangers. Did I notice what badge was on his cap? My eyes were better than hers. She trusted it would be all right for them. They were starting very young. It was better to start young. She looked such a good little soul, that girl. It was pleasant to know that house was let at last. It had been empty too long. It was getting a name. People could not help remembering why it was empty. But young life would make it bright.

“People say things only change, but I like to think they change for the better, don’t you? But Williams, he will have it they change for the worse. I don’t know, I’m sure. He thinks nothing really good except the old days.” She laughed quietly, bending to tickle the cat’s ear “nothing good at all except the old days. Even the wrecks were more like wrecks.” She looked at me, smiling.

“As you know,” she said, “there’s many men who follow the sea with homes in this street, but Williams is so proud and strong-willed. He says he doesn’t want to hear about them. What do they know about the sea? You know his way. What do they know about the sea? That’s the way he talks, doesn’t he? But surely the sea is the same for us all. He won’t have it, though. Williams is so vain and determined.”

The captain knocked. There was no doubt about that knock. The door surrendered to him. His is a peremptory summons. The old master mariner brought his bulk with dignity into the room, and his wife, reaching up to that superior height, too slight for the task, ministered to the overcoat of the big figure which was making, all unconsciously, disdainful noises in its throat. It would have been worse than useless for me to interfere. The pair would have repelled me. This was a domestic rite. Once in his struggle with his coat the dominant figure glanced down at the earnestness of his little mate, paused for a moment, and the stern face relaxed.

With his attention concentrated and severe even in so small an effort as taking from his broad back a reluctant coat, and the unvarying fixed intentness of the dark eyes over which the lids, loose with age, had partly folded, giving him the piercing look of a bird of prey; and the swarthiness of his face, massive, hairless, and acutely ridged, with its crown of tousled white hair, his was a figure which made it easy to believe the tales one had heard of him when he was the master of the Oberon, and drove his ship home with the new season’s tea, leaving, it is said, a trail of light spars all the way from Tientsin to the Channel.

The coat was off. His wife had it over her arm, and was regarding with concern the big petulant face above her. She said to him: “Number Ten is let at last. They’re a young couple who have got it. He’s a sailor.”

The old man sat down at a corner of the table, stooped, and in one handful abruptly hauled the cat off the rug, laying its unresisting body across his knees, and rubbing its ribs with a hand that half covered it. He did not appear to have heard what he had been told. He did not look at her, but talked gravely to the fire. “I met Dennison today,” he said, as if speaking aloud to himself, in surprise at meeting Dennison. “Years since I saw him,” he continued, turning to me. “Where was it now, where was it? Must have been Canton River, the year he lost his ship. Extraordinary to find Dennison still afloat. Not many of those men about now. You can go the length of the Dock Road today and see nothing and meet nobody.”

He looked again into the flames, fixedly, as though what he really wanted was only to be found in them. His wife was at his elbow. She, too, was watching them, still with his coat over her arm. She spoke aloud, though more to herself than to us. “She seemed such a nice little woman, too. I couldn’t see the badge on his cap.”

“Eh?” said the old man, throwing the cat back to the floor and rounding to his wife. “What’s that? Let’s have tea, Mrs. Williams. We’re both dreaming, and there’s a visitor. What are you dreaming about? You’ve nothing to dream about.”

There was never any doubt, though, that the past was full and alive to him. There was only the past. And what a memory was his! He would look at the portrait of his old clipper, the Oberon it was central over the mantel-shelf and recall her voyages, and the days in each voyage, and just how the weather was, what canvas she carried, and how things happened. Malabar Street vanished. We would go, when he was in that mood, and live for the evening in another year, with men who have gone, among strange affairs forgotten.

Mrs. Williams would be in her dream, too, with her work-basket in her lap, absently picking the table-cloth with her needle. But for us, all we knew was that the Cinderella had a day’s start of us, and the weather in the Southern Ocean, when we got there, was like the death of the world. I was aware that we were under foresail, lower topsails, and stay-sails only, and they were too much. They were driving us under, and the Oberon was tender. Yes, she was very tricky. But where was the Cinderella? Anyhow, she had a day’s start of us. Captain Williams would rise then, and stand before his ship’s picture, pointing into her rigging.

“I must go in and see that girl,” said the captain’s wife once, when we were in the middle of one of our voyages.

“Eh?” questioned her husband, instantly bending to her, but keeping his forefinger pointing to his old ship; thinking, perhaps, his wife was adding something to his narrative he had forgotten.

“Yes,” she said, and did not meet his face. “I must go in and see her. He’s been gone a week now. He must be crossing the Bay, and look at the weather we’ve had. I know what it is.”

I did then leave our voyage in the past for a moment, to listen to the immediate weather without. It was certainly a wild night. I should get wet when I left for home.

“Ah!” exclaimed the puzzled captain, suddenly enlightened, with his finger still addressing the picture on the wall. “She means the man down the street. An engineer, isn’t he? The missis calls him a sailor.” He continued that voyage, made in 1862.

There was one evening when, on the home run, we had overhauled and passed our rivals in the race, and were off the Start. Captain Williams was serving a tot all round, in a propitiatory act, hoping to lower the masts of the next astern deeper beneath the horizon, and to keep them there till he was off Blackwall Point. He then found he wanted to show me a letter, testimony to the work of his ship, which he had received that voyage from his owners. Where was it? The missis knew, and he looked over his shoulder for her. But she was not there.

They must have been the days to live in, when China was like that, and there was all the East, and such ships, and men who were seamen and navigators in a way that is lost. As the old master mariner, who had lived in that time, would sometimes demand of me: What is the sea now? Steamers do not make time, or lose it. They keep it. They run to schedule, one behind the other, in processions. They have nothing to overcome. They do not fail, and they cannot triumph. They are predestined engines, and the sea is but their track. Yet it had been otherwise. And the old man would brood into the greater past, his voice would grow quiet, and he would gently emphasize his argument by letting one hand, from a fixed wrist, rise, and fall sadly on the table, in a gesture of solemn finality. He was in that act, early one evening, while his wife was reading a newspaper; and I had risen to go, and stood for a moment silent in the thought that these of ours were lesser days, and their petty demands and trivial duties made of men but mere attendants on uninspiring process.

Serene Mrs. Williams, reading her paper, and not in our world at all, at that moment struck the paper into her lap, and fixed me with surprise and shock in her eyes, as though she had just repelled that mean print in a malicious attempt at injury. Her husband took no notice. She handed me the paper, with a finger on a paragraph. “The steamer Arab, which sailed on December 26 last for Buenos Aires, has not been heard of since that date, and today was ‘posted’ as missing.”

I remembered then a young man in uniform, with a rakish cap, trying to find a key while a girl was laughing at him. As I left the house I could see in the dusk, a little down the street, the girl standing at her gate. The street was empty and silent. At the end of it the lamp-lighter set his beacon.