ON THE LOOK OUT
In these times of ours, though concerning the exact
year there is no need
to be precise
, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance
, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron
, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn
evening was closing in.
The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled
hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognizable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair
of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack
in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager
look out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion
for a sitter, no paint, no inscription
, no appliance
beyond a rusty
boathook and a coil
of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in cargo
, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue
to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent
and searching gaze
. The tide
, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy
in its broad
sweep, as the boat made slight
head-way against it, or drove stern foremost
before it, according
as he directed his daughter by a movement
of his head. She watched his face as earnestly
as he watched the river. But, in the intensity
of her look there was a touch of dread
Allied to the bottom of the river rather than the surface
, by reason
of the slime and ooze
with which it was covered, and its sodden state
, this boat and the two figures in it obviously
were doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought. Half savage
as the man showed, with no covering on his matted
head, with his brown arms bare to between the elbow and the shoulder, with the loose knot of a looser kerchief
lying low on his bare breast in a wilderness
of beard and whisker
, with such dress as he wore seeming to be made out of the mud that begrimed his boat, still there was a business-like usage
in his steady gaze
. So with every lithe
action of the girl, with every turn of her wrist, perhaps most of all with her look of dread
; they were things of usage
'Keep her out, Lizzie. Tide runs strong here. Keep her well afore the sweep of it.'
Trusting to the girl's skill
and making no use of the rudder, he eyed the coming tide
with an absorbed attention
. So the girl eyed him. But, it happened now, that a slant
of light from the setting
sun glanced into the bottom of the boat, and, touching a rotten
stain there which bore
to the outline
of a muffled human
form, coloured it as though with diluted blood. This caught the girl's eye, and she shivered.
'What ails you?' said the man, immediately aware
of it, though so intent
on the advancing waters; 'I see nothing afloat.'
The red light was gone, the shudder
was gone, and his gaze
, which had come back to the boat for a moment
, travelled away again. Wheresoever the strong tide
met with an impediment
, his gaze
paused for an instant
. At every mooring-chain and rope, at every stationery
boat or barge
into a broad
-arrowhead, at the offsets from the piers of Southwark Bridge, at the paddles of the river steamboats as they beat the filthy
water, at the floating logs of timber
lashed together lying off certain
wharves, his shining eyes darted a hungry look. After a darkening hour or so, suddenly
the rudder-lines tightened in his hold, and he steered hard towards the Surrey shore
Always watching his face, the girl instantly answered to the action in her sculling; presently
the boat swung round, quivered as from a sudden jerk, and the upper half of the man was stretched out over the stern
The girl pulled the hood of a cloak
she wore, over her head and over her face, and, looking backward
so that the front folds of this hood were turned down the river, kept the boat in that direction
going before the tide
. Until now, the boat had barely
held her own, and had hovered about one spot; but now, the banks changed swiftly, and the deepening shadows and the kindling
lights of London Bridge were passed, and the tiers of shipping lay on either hand.
It was not until now that the upper half of the man came back into the boat. His arms were wet and dirty, and he washed them over the side. In his right
hand he held something, and he washed that in the river too. It was money. He chinked it once, and he blew upon it once, and he spat
upon it once,-'for luck,' he hoarsely said-before he put it in his pocket.
The girl turned her face towards him with a start, and rowed in silence
. Her face was very pale
. He was a hook-nosed man, and with that and his bright eyes and his ruffled head, bore
a certain likeness
to a roused bird of prey
'Take that thing off your face.'
She put it back.
'Here! and give me hold of the sculls. I'll take the rest of the spell.'
'No, no, father! No! I can't indeed. Father!-I cannot sit so near it!'
He was moving towards her to change places, but her terrified expostulation
stopped him and he resumed his seat.
'What hurt can it do you?'
'None, none. But I cannot bear it.'
'It's my belief
you hate the sight
of the very river.'
'I-I do not like it, father.'
'As if it wasn't your living! As if it wasn't meat and drink to you!'
At these latter
words the girl shivered again, and for a moment
paused in her rowing, seeming to turn deadly faint
. It escaped his attention
, for he was glancing over the stern
at something the boat had in tow.
'How can you be so thankless to your best friend, Lizzie? The very fire that warmed you when you were a babby, was picked out of the river alongside the coal barges. The very basket that you slept in, the tide
. The very rockers that I put it upon to make a cradle
of it, I cut out of a piece of wood that drifted from some ship or another.'
Lizzie took her right
hand from the scull it held, and touched her lips with it, and for a moment
held it out lovingly towards him: then, without speaking, she resumed her rowing, as another boat of similar appearance
, though in rather better trim
, came out from a dark place and dropped softly alongside.
'In luck again, Gaffer?' said a man with a squinting leer
, who sculled her and who was alone, 'I know'd you was in luck again, by your wake
as you come down.'
'Ah!' replied the other, drily. 'So you're out, are you?'
There was now a tender
yellow moonlight on the river, and the new comer, keeping half his boat's length
astern of the other boat looked hard at its track
'I says to myself,' he went on, 'directly
you hove in view, yonder
's Gaffer, and in luck again, by George if he ain't! Scull it is, pardner-don't fret
yourself-I didn't touch him.' This was in answer to a quick impatient movement
on the part of Gaffer: the speaker
at the same time unshipping his scull on that side, and laying his hand on the gunwale
of Gaffer's boat and holding to it.
'He's had touches enough not to want no more, as well as I make him out, Gaffer! Been a knocking about with a pretty many tides, ain't he pardner? Such is my out-of-luck ways, you see! He must have passed me when he went up last time, for I was on the lookout
below bridge here. I a'most think you're like the wulturs, pardner, and scent
in a dropped voice, and with more than one glance
at Lizzie who had pulled on her hood again. Both men then looked with a weird
in the wake
of Gaffer's boat.
'Easy does it, betwixt us. Shall I take him aboard
'No,' said the other. In so surly
that the man, after a blank stare
, acknowledged it with the retort
'-Arn't been eating nothing as has disagreed with you, have you, pardner?'
'Why, yes, I have,' said Gaffer. 'I have been swallowing too much of that word, Pardner. I am no pardner of yours.'
'Since when was you no pardner of mine
, Gaffer Hexam Esquire?'
'Since you was accused of robbing a man. Accused of robbing a live man!' said Gaffer, with great indignation
'And what if I had been accused of robbing a dead man, Gaffer?'
'You couldn't do it.'
'Couldn't you, Gaffer?'
'No. Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible
for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? 'Tother world. What world does money belong to? This world. How can money be a corpse
's? Can a corpse
own it, want it, spend it, claim
it, miss it? Don't try to go confounding the rights and wrongs of things in that way. But it's worthy
of the sneaking spirit
that robs a live man.'
'I'll tell you what it is-.'
'No you won't. I'll tell you what it is. You got off with a short time of it for putting your hand in the pocket of a sailor, a live sailor. Make the most of it and think yourself lucky, but don't think after that to come over me with your pardners. We have worked together in time past, but we work together no more in time present nor yet future
. Let go. Cast off!'
'Gaffer! If you think to get rid of me this way-.'
'If I don't get rid of you this way, I'll try another, and chop you over the fingers with the stretcher, or take a pick at your head with the boat-hook. Cast off! Pull you, Lizzie. Pull home, since you won't let your father pull.'
Lizzie shot ahead, and the other boat fell astern. Lizzie's father, composing himself into the easy attitude
of one who had asserted the high moralities and taken an unassailable
position, slowly lighted a pipe, and smoked, and took a survey
of what he had in tow. What he had in tow, lunged itself at him sometimes in an awful manner when the boat was checked, and sometimes seemed to try to wrench
itself away, though for the most part it followed submissively. A neophyte might
have fancied that the ripples passing over it were dreadfully like faint
changes of expression
on a sightless face; but Gaffer was no neophyte
and had no fancies.