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- Great Expectations - 190/210 -


between the muddy banks, but the tide was yet with us when we were

off Gravesend. As our charge was wrapped in his cloak, I purposely

passed within a boat or two's length of the floating Custom House,

and so out to catch the stream, alongside of two emigrant ships,

and under the bows of a large transport with troops on the

forecastle looking down at us. And soon the tide began to slacken,

and the craft lying at anchor to swing, and presently they had all

swung round, and the ships that were taking advantage of the new

tide to get up to the Pool, began to crowd upon us in a fleet, and

we kept under the shore, as much out of the strength of the tide

now as we could, standing carefully off from low shallows and

mudbanks.

Our oarsmen were so fresh, by dint of having occasionally let her

drive with the tide for a minute or two, that a quarter of an

hour's rest proved full as much as they wanted. We got ashore among

some slippery stones while we ate and drank what we had with us,

and looked about. It was like my own marsh country, flat and

monotonous, and with a dim horizon; while the winding river turned

and turned, and the great floating buoys upon it turned and turned,

and everything else seemed stranded and still. For, now, the last

of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed;

and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had

followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child's first

rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and a little squat

shoal-lighthouse on open piles, stood crippled in the mud on stilts

and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy

stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck

out of the mud, and an old landing-stage and an old roofless building

slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

We pushed off again, and made what way we could. It was much harder

work now, but Herbert and Startop persevered, and rowed, and rowed,

and rowed, until the sun went down. By that time the river had

lifted us a little, so that we could see above the bank. There was

the red sun, on the low level of the shore, in a purple haze, fast

deepening into black; and there was the solitary flat marsh; and

far away there were the rising grounds, between which and us there

seemed to be no life, save here and there in the foreground a

melancholy gull.

As the night was fast falling, and as the moon, being past the

full, would not rise early, we held a little council: a short one,

for clearly our course was to lie by at the first lonely tavern we

could find. So, they plied their oars once more, and I looked out

for anything like a house. Thus we held on, speaking little, for

four or five dull miles. It was very cold, and, a collier coming by

us, with her galley-fire smoking and flaring, looked like a

comfortable home. The night was as dark by this time as it would be

until morning; and what light we had, seemed to come more from the

river than the sky, as the oars in their dipping struck at a few

reflected stars.

At this dismal time we were evidently all possessed by the idea that

we were followed. As the tide made, it flapped heavily at irregular

intervals against the shore; and whenever such a sound came, one or

other of us was sure to start and look in that direction. Here and

there, the set of the current had worn down the bank into a little

creek, and we were all suspicious of such places, and eyed them

nervously. Sometimes, "What was that ripple?" one of us would say

in a low voice. Or another, "Is that a boat yonder?" And

afterwards, we would fall into a dead silence, and I would sit

impatiently thinking with what an unusual amount of noise the oars

worked in the thowels.

At length we descried a light and a roof, and presently afterwards

ran alongside a little causeway made of stones that had been picked

up hard by. Leaving the rest in the boat, I stepped ashore, and

found the light to be in a window of a public-house. It was a dirty

place enough, and I dare say not unknown to smuggling adventurers;

but there was a good fire in the kitchen, and there were eggs and

bacon to eat, and various liquors to drink. Also, there were two

double-bedded rooms - "such as they were," the landlord said. No

other company was in the house than the landlord, his wife, and a

grizzled male creature, the "Jack" of the little causeway, who was

as slimy and smeary as if he had been low-water mark too.

With this assistant, I went down to the boat again, and we all came

ashore, and brought out the oars, and rudder, and boat-hook, and

all else, and hauled her up for the night. We made a very good meal

by the kitchen fire, and then apportioned the bedrooms: Herbert and

Startop were to occupy one; I and our charge the other. We found

the air as carefully excluded from both, as if air were fatal to

life; and there were more dirty clothes and bandboxes under the

beds than I should have thought the family possessed. But, we

considered ourselves well off, notwithstanding, for a more solitary

place we could not have found.

While we were comforting ourselves by the fire after our meal, the

Jack - who was sitting in a corner, and who had a bloated pair of

shoes on, which he had exhibited while we were eating our eggs and

bacon, as interesting relics that he had taken a few days ago from

the feet of a drowned seaman washed ashore - asked me if we had

seen a four-oared galley going up with the tide? When I told him

No, he said she must have gone down then, and yet she "took up

too," when she left there.

"They must ha' thought better on't for some reason or another,"

said the Jack, "and gone down."


Great Expectations - 190/210

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