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THERE is a slight but perceptible colour in the atmosphere of summer. It is not visible close at hand, nor always where the light falls strongest, and if looked at too long it sometimes fades away. But over gorse and heath, in the warm hollows of wheatfield, and round about the rising ground there is something more than air alone. It is not mist, nor the hazy vapour of autumn, nor the blue tints that come over the distant hills and woods.
As there is a bloom upon the peach and grape, so this is the bloom of summer. The air is ripe and rich, full of the emanations, the perfume, from corn and flower and leafy tree. In strictness the term will not, of course, be accurate, yet by what other word can this appearance in the atmosphere be described but as a bloom? Upon a still and sunlit summer afternoon it may be seen over the osier-covered islets in the Thames immediately above Teddington Lock.
It hovers over the level cornfields that stretch towards Richmond, and along the ridge of the wooded hills that bound them. The bank by the towing-path is steep and shadowless, being bare of trees or hedge; but the grass is pleasant to rest on, and heat is always more supportable near flowing water. In places the friable earth has crumbled away, and there, where the soil and the stones are exposed, the stonecrop flourishes. A narrow footpath on the summit, raised high above the water, skirts the corn, and is overhung with grass heavily laden by its own seed.
Sometimes in early June the bright trifolium, drooping with its weight of flower, brushes against the passer-by — acre after acre of purple. Occasionally the odour of beans in blossom floats out over the river. Again, above the green wheat the larks rise, singing as they soar; or later on the butterflies wander over the yellow ears. Or, as the law of rotation dictates, the barley whitens under the sun. Still, whether in the dry day, or under the dewy moonlight, the plain stretching from the water to the hills is never without perfume, colour, or song.
There stood, one summer not long since, in the corner of a barley field close to the Lock, within a stone's throw, perfect shrubs of mallow, rising to the shoulder, thick as a walking-stick, and hung with flower. Poppies filled every interstice between the barley stalks, their scarlet petals turned back in very languor of exuberant colour, as the awns, drooping over, caressed them. Poppies, again, in the same fields formed a scarlet ground from which the golden wheat sprang up, and among it here and there shone the large blue rays of wild succory.
The paths across the corn having no hedges, the wayfarer really walks among the wheat, and can pluck with either hand. The ears rise above the heads of children, who shout with joy as they rush along as though to the arms of their mother.
Beneath the towing-path, at the root of the willow bushes, which the tow-ropes, so often drawn over them, have kept low, the water-docks lift their thick stems and giant leaves. Bunches of rough-leaved comfrey grow down to the water's edge — indeed, the coarse stems sometimes bear signs of having been partially under water when a freshet followed a storm. The flowers are not so perfectly bell-shaped as those of some plants, but are rather tubular. They appear in April, though then green, and may be found all the summer months. Where the comfrey grows thickly the white bells give some colour to the green of the bank, and would give more were they not so often overshadowed by the leaves.
Water betony, or persicaria, lifts its pink spikes everywhere, tiny florets close together round the stem at the top; the leaves are willow-shaped, and there is scarcely a hollow or break in the bank where the earth has fallen which is not clothed with them. A mile or two up the river the tansy is plentiful, bearing golden buttons, which, like every fragment of the feathery foliage, if pressed in the fingers, impart to them a peculiar scent. There, too, the yellow loosestrife pushes up its tall slender stalks to the top of the low willow-bushes, that the bright yellow flowers may emerge from the shadow.
The river itself, the broad stream, ample and full, exhibits all its glory in this reach; from One Tree to the Lock it is nearly straight, and the river itself is everything. Between wooded hills, or where divided by numerous islets, or where trees and hedges enclose the view, the stream is but part of the scene. Here it is all. The long raised bank without a hedge or fence, with the cornfields on its level, simply guides the eye to the water. Those who are afloat upon it insensibly yield to the influence of the open expanse.
The boat whose varnished sides but now slipped so gently that the cutwater did not even raise a wavelet, and every black rivet-head was visible as a line of dots, begins to forge ahead. The oars are dipped farther back, and as the blade feels the water holding it in the hollow, the lissom wood bends to its work. Before the cutwater a wave rises, and, repulsed, rushes outwards. At each stroke, as the weight swings towards the prow, there is just the least faint depression at its stem as the boat travels. Whirlpool after whirlpool glides from the oars, revolving to the rear with a threefold motion, round and round, backwards and outwards. The crew impart their own life to their boat; the animate and inanimate become as one, the boat is no longer wooden but alive.
If there be a breeze a fleet of white sails comes round the willow-hidden bend. But the Thames yachtsmen have no slight difficulties to contend with. The capricious wind is nowhere so thoroughly capricious as on the upper river. Along one mile there may be a spanking breeze, the very next is calm, or with a fitful puff coming over a high hedge, which flutters his pennant, but does not so much as shake the sail. Even in the same mile the wind may take the water on one side, and scarcely move a leaf on the other. But the current is always there, and the vessel is certain to drift.
When at last a good opportunity is obtained, just as the boat heels over, and the rushing bubbles at the prow resound, she must be put about, and the flapping foresail almost brushes the osiers. If she does not come round — if the movement has been put off a moment too long — the keel grates, and she is aground immediately. It is nothing but tacking, tacking, tacking — a kind of stitching the stream.
Nor can one always choose the best day for the purpose; the exigencies of business, perhaps, will not permit, and when free, the wind, which has been scattering tiles and chimney-pots and snapping telegraph wires in the City all the week, drops on the Saturday to nothing. He must possess invincible patience, and at the same time be always ready to advance his vessel even a foot, and his judgment must never fail him at the critical time.
But the few brief hours when the circumstances are favourable compensate for delays and monotonous calms; the vessel, built on well-judged lines, answers her helm and responds to his will with instant obedience, and that sense of command is perhaps the great charm of sailing. There are others who find a pleasure in the yacht. When at her moorings on a sunny morning she is sometimes boarded by laughing girls, who have put off from the lawn, and who proceed in the most sailor-like fashion to overhaul the rigging and see that everything is shipshape. No position shows off a well-poised figure to such advantage as when, in a close-fitting costume, a lady's arms are held high above her head to haul at a rope.
So the river life flows by; skiffs, and four oars, canoes, solitary scullers in outriggers, once now and then a swift eight, launches, a bargee in a tublike dingey standing up and pushing his sculls instead of pulling; gentlemen, with their shoulders in a halter, hauling like horses and towing fair freights against the current; and punts poled across to shady nooks. The splashing of oars, the staccato sound as a blade feathered too low meets the wavelets, merry voices, sometimes a song, and always a low undertone, which, as the wind accelerates it, rises to a roar. It is the last leap of the river to the sea; the last weir to whose piles the tide rises. On the bank of the weir where the tide must moisten their roots grow dense masses of willowherb, almost as high as the shoulder, with trumpet-shaped pink flowers.
Let us go back again to the bank by the cornfields, with the glorious open stretch of stream. In the evening, the rosy or golden hues of the sunset will be reflected on the surface from the clouds; then the bats wheel to and fro, and once now and then a nighthawk will throw himself through the air with uncertain flight, his motions scarcely to be followed, as darkness falls. Am I mistaken, or are kingfishers less numerous than they were only a few seasons since? Then I saw them, now I do not. Long-continued and severe frosts are very fatal to these birds; they die on the perch.
And may I say a word for the Thames otter? The list of really wild animals now existing in the home counties is so very, very short, that the extermination of one of them seems a serious loss. Every effort is made to exterminate the otter. No sooner does one venture down the river than traps, gins, nets, dogs, prongs, brickbats, every species of missile, all the artillery of vulgar destruction, are brought against its devoted head. Unless my memory serves me wrong, one of these creatures caught in a trap not long since was hammered to death with a shovel or a pitchfork.
Now the river fox is, we know, extremely destructive to fish, but what are a basketful of "bait" compared to one otter? The latter will certainly never be numerous, for the moment they become so, otter-hounds would be employed, and then we should see some sport. Londoners, I think, scarcely recognise the fact that the otter is one of the last links between the wild past of ancient England and the present days of high civilisation.
The beaver is gone, but the otter remains, and comes so near the mighty City as just the other side of the well-known Lock, the portal through which a thousand boats at holiday time convey men and women to breathe pure air. The porpoise, and even the seal, it is said, ventures to Westminster sometimes; the otter to Kingston. Thus, the sea sends its denizens past the vast multitude that surges over the City bridges, and the last link with the olden time, the otter, still endeavours to live near.
Perhaps the river is sweetest to look on in spring time or early summer. Seen from a distance the water seems at first sight, when the broad stream fills the vision as a whole, to flow with smooth, even current between meadow and cornfield. But, coming to the brink, that silvery surface now appears exquisitely chased with ever-changing lines. The light airs, wandering to and fro where high banks exclude the direct influence of the breeze, flutter the ripples hither and thither, so that, instead of rolling upon one lee shore, they meet and expend their little force upon each other. A continuous rising and falling, without a line of direction, thus breaks up the light, not with sparkle or glitter, but with endless silvery facets.
There is no pattern. The apparently intertangled tracing on a work of art presently resolves itself into a design, which once seen is always the same. These wavelets form no design; watch the sheeny maze as long as one will, the eye cannot get at the clue, and so unwind the pattern.
Each seems for a second exactly like its fellow, but varies while you say "These two are the same," and the white reflected light upon the wide stream is now strongest here, and instantly afterwards flickers yonder.
Where a gap in the willows admits a current of air a ripple starts to rush straight across, but is met by another returning, which has been repulsed from the bluff bow of a moored boat, and the two cross and run through each other. As the level of the stream now slightly rises and again falls, the jagged top of a large stone by the shore alternately appears above, or is covered by the surface. The water as it retires leaves for a moment a hollow in itself by the stone, and then swings back to fill the vacuum.
Long roots of willows and projecting branches cast their shadow upon the shallow sandy bottom; the shadow of a branch can be traced slanting downwards with the shelve of the sand till lost in the deeper water. Are those little circlets of light enclosing a round umbra or slightly darker spot, that move along the bottom as the bubbles drift above on the surface, shadows or reflections?
In still, dark places of the stream, where there seems no current, a dust gathers on the water, falling from the trees, or borne thither by the wind and dropping where its impulse ceases. Shadows of branches lie here upon the surface itself, received by the greenish water dust. Round the curve on the concave and lee side of the river, where the wind drives the wavelets direct upon the strand, there are little beaches formed by the undermining and fall of the bank.
The tiny surge rolls up the incline; each wave differing in the height to which it reaches, and none of them alike, washing with it minute fragments of stone and gravel, mere specks which vibrate to and fro with the ripple and even drift with the current. Will these fragments, after a process of trituration, ultimately become sand? A groove runs athwart the bottom, left recently by the keel of a skiff, recently only, for in a few hours these specks of gravel, sand, and particles that sweep along the bottom, fill up such depressions. The motion of these atoms is not continuous, but intermittent; now they rise and are carried a few inches and there sink, in a minute or two to rise again and proceed.
Looking to windward there is a dark tint upon the water; but down the stream, turning the other way, intensely brilliant points of light appear and disappear. Behind a boat rowed against the current two widening lines of wavelets, in the shape of an elongated V, stretch apart and glitter, and every dip of the oars and the slippery oar-blades themselves, as they rise out of the water, reflect the sunshine. The boat appears but to touch the surface, instead of sinking into it, for the water is transparent, and the eye can see underneath the keel.
Here, by some decaying piles, a deep eddy whirls slowly round and round; they stand apart from the shore, for the eddy has cleared away the earth around them. Now, walking behind the waves that roll away from you, dark shadowy spots fluctuate to and fro in the trough of the water. Before a glance can define its shape the shadow elongates itself from a spot to an oval, the oval melts into another oval, and reappears afar off. When, too, in flood time, the hurrying current seems to respond more sensitively to the shape of the shallows and the banks beneath, there boils up from below a ceaseless succession of irregular circles as if the water there expanded from a centre, marking the verge of its outflow with bubbles and raised lines upon the surface.
By the side float tiny whirlpools, some rotating this way and some that, sucking down and boring tubes into the stream. Longer lines wander past, and as they go, curve round, till when about to make a spiral they lengthen out and drift, and thus, perpetually coiling and uncoiling, glide with the current. They somewhat resemble the conventional curved strokes which, upon an Assyrian bas-relief, indicate water.
Under the spring sunshine, the idle stream flows easily onward, yet every part of the apparently even surface varies; and so, too, in a larger way, the aspects of the succeeding reaches change. Upon one broad bend the tints are green, for the river moves softly in a hollow, with its back, as it were, to the wind.
The green lawn sloping to the shore, and the dark cedar's storeys of flattened foliage, tier above tier; the green osiers of two eyots: the light-leaved aspen; the tall elms, fresh and green; and the green hawthorn bushes give their colour to the water, smooth as if polished, in which they are reflected. A white swan floats in the still narrow channel between the eyots, and there is a punt painted green moored in a little inlet by the lawn, and scarce visible under drooping boughs. Roofs of red tile and dormer windows rise behind the trees, the dull yellow of the walls is almost hidden, and deep shadows lurk about the shore.
Opposite, across the stream, a wide green sward stretches beside the towing-path, lit up with sunshine which touches the dandelions till they glow in the grass. From time to time a nightingale sings in a hawthorn unregarded, and in the elms of the park hard by a crowd of jackdaws chatter. But a little way round a curve the whole stream opens to the sunlight and becomes blue, reflecting the sky. Again, sweeping round another curve with bounteous flow, the current meets the wind direct, a cloud comes up, the breeze freshens, and the watery green waves are tipped with foam.
Rolling upon the strand, they leave a line like a tide marked by twigs and fragments of dead wood, leaves, and the hop-like flowers of Chichester elms which have been floated up and left. Over the stormy waters a band of brown bank-martins wheel hastily to and fro, and from the osiers the loud chirp of the sedge-reedling rises above the buffet of the wind against the ear, and the splashing of the waves.
Once more a change, where the stream darts along swiftly, after having escaped from a weir, and still streaked with foam. The shore rises like a sea beach, and on the pebbles men are patching and pitching old barges which have been hauled up on the bank. A skiff partly drawn up on the beach rocks as the current strives to work it loose, and up the varnish of the side glides a flickering light reflected from the wavelets. A fleet of such skiffs are waiting for hire by the bridge; the waterman cleaning them with a parti-coloured mop spies me eyeing his vessels, and before I know exactly what is going on, and whether I have yet made up my mind, the sculls are ready, the cushions in; I take my seat, and am shoved gently forth upon the stream.
After I have gone under the arch, and am clear of all obstructions, I lay the sculls aside, and reclining let the boat drift past a ballast punt moored over the shallowest place, and with a rising load of gravel. One man holds the pole steadying the scoop, while his mate turns a windlass the chain from which drags it along the bottom, filling the bag with pebbles, and finally hauls it to the surface, when the contents are shot out in the punt.
It is a floating box rather than a boat, square at each end, and built for capacity instead of progress. There are others moored in various places, and all hard at work. The men in this one, scarcely glancing at my idle skiff, go steadily on, dropping the scoop, steadying the pole, turning the crank, and emptying the pebbles with a rattle.
Where do these pebbles come from? Like the stream itself there seems a continual supply; if a bank be scooped away and punted to the shore presently another bank forms. If a hollow be deepened, by-and-by it fills up; if a channel be opened, after a while it shallows again. The stony current flows along below, as the liquid current above. Yet in so many centuries the strand has not been cleared of its gravel, nor has it all been washed out from the banks.
The skiff drifts again, at first slowly, till the current takes hold of it and bears it onward. Soon it is evident that a barge-port is near — a haven where barges discharge their cargoes. A by-way leads down to the river where boats are lying for hire — a dozen narrow punts, waiting at this anchorage till groundbait be lawful. The ends of varnished skiffs, high and dry, are visible in a shed carefully covered with canvas; while sheaves of oars and sculls lean against the wooden wall.
Through the open doors of another shed there may be had a glimpse of shavings and tools, and slight battens crossing the workshop in apparent confusion, forming a curious framework. These are the boatbuilder's struts and stays, and contrivances to keep the boat in rigid position, that her lines may be true and delicate, strake upon strake of dull red mahogany rising from the beechen keel, for the craftsman strings his boat almost as a violinist strings his violin, with the greatest care and heed, and with a right adjustment of curve and due proportion. There is not much clinking, or sawing, or thumping; little noise, but much skill.
Gradually the scene opens. Far down a white bridge spans the river: on the shore red-tiled and gabled houses crowd to the very edge; and behind them a church tower stands out clear against the sky. There are barges everywhere. By the towing-path colliers are waiting to be drawn up stream, black as their freight, by the horses that are nibbling the hawthorn hedge; while by the wharf, labourers are wheeling barrows over bending planks from the barges to the carts upon the shore. A tug comes under the bridge, panting, every puff re-echoed from the arches, dragging by sheer force deeply laden flats behind it. The water in front of their bluff bows rises in a wave nearly to the deck, and then swoops in a sweeping curve to the rear.
The current by the port runs back on the wharf side towards its source, and the foam drifts up the river instead of down. Green flags on a sandbank far out in the stream, their roots covered and their bent tips only visible, now swing with the water and now heel over with the breeze. The Edwin and Angelina lies at anchor, waiting to be warped into her berth, her sails furled, her green painted water-barrel lashed by the stern, her tiller idle after the long and toilsome voyage from Rochester.
For there are perils of the deep even to those who only go down to it in barges. Barge as she is, she is not without a certain beauty, and a certain interest, inseparable from all that has received the buffet of the salt water, and over which the salt spray has flown. Barge too, as she is, she bears her part in the commerce of the world. The very architecture on the shore is old-fashioned where these bluff-bowed vessels come, narrow streets and overhanging houses, boat anchors in the windows, sails and tarry ropes; and is there not a Row Barge Inn somewhere?
The sudden shout startles me, and, glancing round, I find an empty black barge, high out of the water, floating helplessly down upon me with the stream. Noiselessly the great hulk had drifted upon me; as it came the light glinted on the wavelets before the bow, quick points of brilliant light. But two strokes with the sculls carried me out of the way.