Authors: H. M. Tomlinson
H. M. Tomlinson
The steamer moved up river at half-speed, and the sounds of life fell with the sun. The shores grew blurred. The quiet was the dusk. The ship itself was hushed, and her men about their duties appeared at a task spectrally, out of nowhere. She might have been trying to reach her destination unobserved. The tired air spilling over the steamer's bows hardly reached the bridge. The bridge caught the last of the light, and a trace of anger that flushed the mirk banked in the west, to which the ship was moving, was reflected in the face of an officer there, and gave him the distinction of a being regnant and stern. He was superior, and seemed to be brooding down over some passengers sitting in a group on the indistinct foredeck. They were murmuring in conversation, with a child asleep on a shawl beside one of the chairs.
Yellow glims appeared low down in the shadows that were Kent and Essex. That day of summer had gone. Only the wan river and the sky remembered it. A figure rose from the group on the foredeck, and his voice, surprisingly uplifted, was as if he had been compelled to an important announcement. “There's the smoke of it. London.”
The child sat up quickly. He stared up and ahead, as his elders were doing. He wanted to see what London meant. He saw only the solid black angle of the bows, and the faint smear of crimson beyond. He heard waters muttering, and edged closer to the shadow of his mother. Her hand sought his bare head, and rumpled his hair.
“Nearly home, Jim.”
The sound of the waters, the quiet that was neither day nor night, and that grave word which announced the unknown, brought the child to his feet. He felt as he did when he heard the old clock talking to itself at night in its case, or saw a star watching him through the bedroom curtains when everybody was asleep, and he was wondering what the clock was saying. He did not know what he expected to see; but if it were there it would be better to look at it. So he stood up. But nothing was there that he knew. It was the world. He did not know what it meant. The ship was going towards a darkness which reached almost to the top of the pale sky. It seemed to have blood in it. “There you are, Jim Colet,” said his father. “See it? London, my boy.” But he could see only a darkness.
He looked at his father. But his elders had forgotten him. They continued their confidential talk.
“You know, I haven't seen this river since the year of the
Who was that princess? It did not look like a place for princesses. Sometimes his father did not mean what he said. He never smiled when he was joking with you. It looked as if the ship were going to where night hides in the daytime. He did not know what they were all talking about.
“Never heard from him afterwards.”
Their quiet words came out of the shadows without being joined together.
“I remember. He was afraid of it, but he went.”
It was nearly as hard to hear the talkers as to see them. Who was afraid? Where did he go?
“Yes, but he was afraid of his own shadow.”
Why were they speaking so quietly?
“Well, his shadow was enough to make any man nervous.”
There was a little laugh. Jim thought they were talking as if they did not want some one to hear them.
“Called it fortune. His luck, or fate, I forget. The same old dream. I suppose we can't live without dreaming. He didn't want to go, and yet he never came back. This river has seen a lot of men of that sort. It is a river of dreams.”
A woman's voice came with more distinction. “Some of them came true, though. There's London to prove it.”
The ship seemed to have reached the hiding-place of night. It was almost quite dark. The ship was going deeper into it. Low yellow stars moved past on either side, as though they were fixed in the darkness which had come to meet them. The night was sweeping past. The ship was trembling. It was getting cold. Jim could hardly keep from shivering.
“Proof they come true? What proof do we want?” said a voice. “The dream is true, if you have it. There is nothing else.” The speaker stood up. “I know, I tell you. It is true if you have it. Better than London, or any other proof. If I had my time over again.â¦”
The speaker was tall but misty, yet Jim could see he was an old man. His voice was like the sound of water. He was staring over their heads, at the darkness, at London.
“Staying away or coming back makes no difference. There are other worlds.”
Nobody answered him. The tall stranger continued to stare ahead, and was silent. Then another voice asked, “Where are we now?”
The old man remained standing. He did not seem to hear the question. The only answer to it was the murmuring of the tide. The standing figure seemed to have forgotten them. The boy looked up at the tall old man, who continued to gaze over the heads of the others. Was he looking to another world? The tide continued its muttering. The lights went by in silence. Then the old man sighed. He spoke again, in a voice that seemed far away in something deep.
“Gallions Reach,” he said, as if he thought he had better let them know it, after all. As he spoke, out of the night, across the water, as though to show that he was right, there came a fluttering of the air, and that broke into a sombre answer, the call of an unseen ship.
There is a region of grey limestone and glass, horizontally stratified into floors, intersected by narrow ravines called avenues, and honeycombed by shipping and commercial offices, which lies between Fenchurch and Leadenhall Streets. Billiter Avenue is one of its intersecting clefts. This secluded corner of the city must be traversed on foot, because its narrow paths are marked out only for its cliff climbers; but nobody ever goes into it except they who are concerned with the secrets of its caves. The wealth of the cave of Sinbad, compared with that of most of the offices in this canton of the city, would have seemed but a careless disposal of the superfluous, yet within the guarded recesses of the cliffs of Billiter Avenue no treasure is ever visible. It may be viewed at all only by confidential initiates, and even they cannot see it except as symbols in ledgers, bills of lading, bank drafts, warrants, indents, manifests, and in other forms designed to puzzle moths and official liquidators in their work of corruption. It has no beauty. It is not like the streets of jasper. It does not smell of myrrh. Its gates are not praise. There is no joy in it even for the privileged. A life devoted to the cherishing of this treasure gives to a devotee a countenance as grave as would golf or the obsequies of a dear friend. One rose in the sunlight, or a snail on the thorn, might seem to be above its dry and papery fame. Still, its virtue is there, powerful, though abstract and incredible. The attraction of the hidden treasure of this region, if as baffling to strangers as the beauty of the innumerable brass name-plates at its doors, is dominant, nevertheless.
There are acres of its lower walls covered with names. They are, nearly all of them, inscribed in brass. A chance wayfarer might think he had found abundant evidence of a local craving for immortality. He might think the inscriptions to be the marks of anxious men who desired a lasting impress of their insignificance, for to him the names would be no more important, famous, or delectable than those cut into trees or on tombstones, or scrawled in convenient recesses.
James Colet was one of the multitude which entered this region every morning at nine o'clock and deserted it about six in the evening. Between those hours the arid and hollow limestone, where nothing grows but cyphers, is thronged with a legion as intent and single-minded as that of a vast formicarium. Before those hours, and at night, it is as silent as the ruins of Memphis, and as empty, except for a few vestals with brooms and pails who haunt the temporary solitude on their ministration to whatever joss presides over numerals.
An explorer, questing those acres of brass plates for a clue to a man he desired to find, could never happen on Colet at all, unless he had divined him behind a plate which announced Perriams, Limited, First Floor. That name did not seem more significant than the numerous other inscriptions on the wall within the stone and iron portal of the building in Billiter Avenue. Yet it is famous, in its own place. There it is as familiar a word as Colombo, Rangoon, Penang, Borneo, or China. Perriam is synonymous with produce. It is rubber, copra, nutmegs, tea, gums, pepper, sugar, rattans, tortoise-shell and much else which can be induced by native labour out of tropical prodigality disciplined by western accountancy. It is other things, too, of course, but in a chronicle of commerce they would be as irrelevant as the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. One should not expect comeliness to be one of the inherencies of a brass plate. Nobody
desires that the balance-sheet of most moment to him should get its chief virtue from what is apostolic. So nobody could love the house of Perriam, for its graces and inward beauty, nor would they question a cheque which, indubitably, bore its sign-manual.
There was a Perriam who had been master and part-owner of an opium clipper. There is no need to say any more about him. He had been the master of an opium smuggler, and he was the origin of the firm. When a visitor is left in the waiting-room of the modern house of Perriam, and is idle and impatient sufficiently long to feel a diminution of his consequence, to feel the matter of his call dwindle to something which is scarcely worth discussion in circumstances so imposing, he then has time to note a portrait of the founder of that house, above a Nankin jar on the mantelpiece; a stylish head, in a rakish marine cap garnished around with an escape of abundant hair, with sombre but truculent eyes, side-whiskers, and a shaven mouth and chin which might once or more have confronted mutiny, and, without a word, caused it to shuffle backwards a little in irresolution. Those eyes would dwell from their height and from the past upon a visitor, with fixity and stern indictment, and thus he might feel the less opinionative when at last a member of the house of Perriam snatched a brief release from matters more urgent to incline a polite ear to his humble petition. Beyond the waiting-room, and within the sanctuary itself, was a corridor of frosted glass and mahogany. The closed doors on either hand bore the names of the principals. One announced Mr. Colet. There were others, and the last of them, just where the office broadened into a spacious array of desks and clerks, had the name of Mr. Perriam upon it.
It was an interior of imperturbable calm. It was a house whose establishment and power was unquestioned. A voice was never raised there. It would have been impious to fracture its lucid stillness with a rude note. In its hush the
pens could be heard adding to the treasure of numerals. The clerks were bent over their desks with devout heads. When one of them was wanted his bell rang on the ceiling overhead, a brief peremptory summons to the principal's room. The bell in Mr. Colet's room whirred, and his door of frosted glass opened instantly. Colet crossed the corridor swiftly and deferentially. He wondered what was the trouble now. That sudden noise in the plaster heaven of the office was the harsh and imperious warning of absolutism. Now what the hell was the matter with Him?