A VERY dark night it was, and bitter cold; the east wind blowing bleak, and bringing with it stinging particles from marsh, and moor, and fen — from the Great Desert and Old Egypt, may be. Some of the component parts of the sharp-edged vapour that came flying up the Thames at London might be mummy-dust, dry atoms from the Temple at Jerusalem, camels’ foot-prints, crocodiles’ hatching-places, loosened grains of expression from the visages of blunt-nosed sphynxes, waifs and strays from caravans of turbaned merchants, vegetation from jungles, frozen snow from the Himalayas. O! It was very, very dark upon the Thames, and it was bitter, bitter cold.
‘And yet,’ said the voice within the great pea-coat at my side, ‘you’ll have seen a good many rivers, too, I dare say?’
‘Truly,’ said I, ‘when I come to think of it, not a few. From the Niagara, downward to the mountain rivers of Italy, which are like the national spirit — very tame, or chafing suddenly and bursting bounds, only to dwindle away again. The Moselle, and the Rhine, and the Rhone; and the Seine, and the Saone; and the St. Lawrence, Mississippi, and Ohio; and the Tiber, the Po, and the Arno; and the — ’
Peacoat coughing as if he had had enough of that, I said no more. I could have carried the catalogue on to a teasing length, though, if I had been in the cruel mind.
‘And after all,’ said he, ‘this looks so dismal?’
‘So awful,’ I returned, ‘at night. The Seine at Paris is very gloomy too, at such a time, and is probably the scene of far more crime and greater wickedness; but this river looks so broad and vast, so murky and silent, seems such an image of death in the midst of the great city’s life, that — ’
That Peacoat coughed again. He COULD NOT stand my holding forth.
We were in a four-oared Thames Police Galley, lying on our oars in the deep shadow of Southwark Bridge — under the corner arch on the Surrey side — having come down with the tide from Vauxhall. We were fain to hold on pretty tight, though close in shore, for the river was swollen and the tide running down very strong. We were watching certain water-rats of human growth, and lay in the deep shade as quiet as mice; our light hidden and our scraps of conversation carried on in whispers. Above us, the massive iron girders of the arch were faintly visible, and below us its ponderous shadow seemed to sink down to the bottom of the stream.
We had been lying here some half an hour. With our backs to the wind, it is true; but the wind being in a determined temper blew straight through us, and would not take the trouble to go round. I would have boarded a fireship to get into action, and mildly suggested as much to my friend Pea.
‘No doubt,’ says he as patiently as possible; ‘but shore-going tactics wouldn’t do with us. River-thieves can always get rid of stolen property in a moment by dropping it overboard. We want to take them WITH the property, so we lurk about and come out upon ’em sharp. If they see us or hear us, over it goes.’
Pea’s wisdom being indisputable, there was nothing for it but to sit there and be blown through, for another half-hour. The water-rats thinking it wise to abscond at the end of that time without commission of felony, we shot out, disappointed, with the tide.
‘Grim they look, don’t they?’ said Pea, seeing me glance over my shoulder at the lights upon the bridge, and downward at their long crooked reflections in the river.
‘Very,’ said I, ‘and make one think with a shudder of Suicides. What a night for a dreadful leap from that parapet!’
‘Aye, but Waterloo’s the favourite bridge for making holes in the water from,’ returned Pea. ‘By the bye — avast pulling, lads! — would you like to speak to Waterloo on the subject?’
My face confessing a surprised desire to have some friendly conversation with Waterloo Bridge, and my friend Pea being the most obliging of men, we put about, pulled out of the force of the stream, and in place of going at great speed with the tide, began to strive against it, close in shore again. Every colour but black seemed to have departed from the world. The air was black, the water was black, the barges and hulks were black, the piles were black, the buildings were black, the shadows were only a deeper shade of black upon a black ground. Here and there, a coal fire in an iron cresset blazed upon a wharf; but, one knew that it too had been black a little while ago, and would be black again soon. Uncomfortable rushes of water suggestive of gurgling and drowning, ghostly rattlings of iron chains, dismal clankings of discordant engines, formed the music that accompanied the dip of our oars and their rattling in the rowlocks. Even the noises had a black sound to me — as the trumpet sounded red to the blind man.