An Historic Fragment by Herbert Knight.
Illustrations by Donald Maxwell
"WANT a boat, sir?"
"No, thank you!"
We stood on the wooden float at Waterloo steps gazing out into the river - I at the Dolphin, a 20ft. boat of nameless rig with bright green lee-boards and brown canvas, the man at nothing in particular.
The Dolphin had once been a Dutch police-boat, and Malcolm, her owner, a queer artistic genius with distinct tendencies in the direction of vagabondage, had picked her up somewhere in Holland and rigged her to his own ideas - ideas which, at one time or another, had attracted the attention of every riverside wit from Teddington to the Nore.
I watched anxiously for some sign of life from her interior, the man who had accosted me standing meditatively by, waiting events.
Much as I dislike anything that is likely to attract attention to myself, I saw clearly that unless I were prepared to stay where I was I must hail her, so, dropping my bag and umbrella, I shouted "Dolphin, ahoy!" with all my might. It was a miserable effort, my voice breaking on the "hoy" and tailing off into a frenzied shriek.
The man looked at me inquiringly, but, seeing my confusion, turned and spat sympathetically into the river.
"Don't seem to 'ave 'eard you, sir," he remarked, gazing with great earnestness at an ex-L.C.C. steamboat moored in mid-stream.
"It's the other!" I murmured feebly.
"No, the other!"
"Oh!" There was a pause. Presently an idea appeared to strike him. "What did yer say 'er name was, sir?"
"Dolphin!" I replied laconically.
"I'll give 'er a hail." He did; the arches of the bridge rang with it; several people ran to the parapet and looked over. The Dolphin gave an ecstatic lurch as if in recognition of her name. I saw a head bob up from her bowels; it was Compton's. The head vanished, then reappeared, followed by a body, which proceeded to drop leisurely into the dinghy, and in a few minutes Compton was at my side.
I tumbled into the little nutshell of a craft, my bag and umbrella were tossed in after me, and, with a few words of advice from the man, we put off, Compton sculling for all he was worth to get out into the stream before the lively inflowing tide carried us beyond our objective. We bobbed about like a cork, and I began to regret my precipitancy in accepting Malcolm's invitation to spend a week-end in dropping down the river.
Genius has immortalised the Thames; but always from bridge, barge, or embankment, possibly because genius has a queasy stomach. There is nothing more disconcerting than to be in a small boat on a making tide held back by a stiff breeze, with tugs churning the ochre-coloured waters into a miniature sea.
As we reached the Dolphin's side a man crawled hastily out of the cabin and hung over the opposite side. His complexion was grey-green, and his whole demeanour one of acute misery.
"Hale, this is Knight," said Compton, by way of introduction. "Hale is a certified master-mariner," he added to me aside.
Hale gave me a yellow smile and returned to his contemplation of the water. Presently he pulled himself together.
"It's that damned oil-stove!" he remarked, by way of explanation.
I was anything but reassured. If the Dolphin and the oil-stove between them had produced this effect upon a certificated master-mariner, what earthly chance had I?
"Malcolm'll be aboard soon," volunteered Compton. I nodded and strove to get to the windward of the stove, but it was stronger than the breeze, and I had recourse to short, sharp sniffs, fearful of the possible consequences of a long-drawn breath.
"Go and have a look at the cabin," said Compton; "it's a cosy little hole."
I hesitated, but, not liking to refuse, crawled in. I remained just long enough to get a general impression of a contusion of blankets, clothing, tinned foods, and bilge-water, then baéd out with great suddenness.
"Snug little place, eh?" Compton's conversational efforts are frequently ill-timed. He is devoid of tact, and there are moments when I pray that his lips may be sealed with a great silence.
Delightful!" I responded, swallowing with great rapidity.
"Is the stove all right?" he persisted.
"It's going strong," I jerked out between my swallows.
There was a pause, then Compton appeared to realise the responsibilites of his position.
"Have something to eat," he urged hospitably; "there's boiled beef, ham, and sardines."
At this moment there was a hoarse yell from the landing-stage. I recognised with thanksgiving Malcolm's cheery voice. His shout is unmistakable. There he stood, or rather danced, for he is never still, laden with brown-paper parcels, with a coil of half-inch rope round his middle, smiling and shouting at us. He was soon aboard, accompanied by the fifth member of our party, a sallow-complexioned medical student with an apprehensive eye and a deep distrust for everything aquatic.