“She’s filthy,” said Elizabeth. “She’s all black. She looks as if she’s wearing a gown of her own smoke.”
My sister was two years older than me and when she didn’t have her nose in a book of poetry, she made it her business to ensure that no statement I made stood without contradiction. For once, I did not join the argument, though my restraint owed more to my fascination with the revolution of the tug’s twin paddles driving her toward us than to sound judgement.
“Sidewheeler,” I said, proud to know the word.
“A filthy sidewheeler.” Elizabeth pressed home her attack, encouraged by my want of enthusiasm for joining the battle. “What think you, Miss Wycroft?”
“I think you are both quite correct.” Our unfortunate governess was forever trying to mediate bickering that made the Schleswig-Holstein question appear as easy to reconcile as the question of whether to take tea at eleven o’clock or half past. “But you must say ‘what do you think’, not ‘what think you’. We are not characters in a Restoration drama.”
“I like the ship behind.” Elizabeth ignored Miss Wycroft’s attempt to digress.
I looked behind the tug, which was turning away from us to follow the convolutions of the River Thames. “Just an old wooden hulk.”
Now that Elizabeth had found a cause to champion in opposition to my own, I was honour bound to enter the lists against her.
“He doesn’t think so.” Elizabeth pointed to a man whose grey hair hung loose around his face as he scribbled frantically in a sketchpad.
“He looks quite mad to me,” I said.
“Hush, master,” said Miss Wycroft. “You mustn’t say such things.”
“Yes, hush,” said Elizabeth.
If the scribbling man had heard us, he did not look up. He was captivated by either the tug or the hulk, or perhaps both.
“And he’s looking at the wooden ship as well.” Elizabeth pointed at a man who doffed his flat cap as the tug swung out of the way of the ship.
Although it was a Wednesday, the was wearing the trousers and jacket of a working man at church. When he revealed his bald head, I could see he was even older than the man whose hands still flew across his sketchpad.
I had to own that the hulk was large enough to impress, and her three rows of gunports spoke of the devastating broadsides she had once hurled. She was like an aged pugilist, old and feeble but still wearing the memories of more glorious days.
“Old and smelly,” I said, “and she’ll be firewood by the end of the week.”
Whatever private thoughts I entertained, my colours were firmly nailed to the funnel of the tug.
I must have spoken louder than I intended because both the watching men looked at me. The sketching eccentric stared, spat the syllable ‘bah!’ at me andreturned to his pad.
The working man regarded me for a moment, then turned back to the river.
Miss Wycroft was still trying to make peace between brother and sister. “It’s not the ship that smells. It’s the river. The river always smells.”
I did not reply, not because of what Miss Wycroft had said but because I was looking at the working man’s back. There was a dignity in his movements that struck me silent, as if he wore some of the past glory of the hulk he had come to see.
“Only because of all the smelly steamboats in it,” said Elizabeth.
My mouth remained closed, allowing her the laurels for that day. I was watching that man as he knuckled his forehead to the hulk, and wondering what he saw that I did not.