With Illustrations by Donald Maxwell.
It was all Carruthers' fault as being first cause, and Malcolm because of his inveterate habit of exploration. Malcolm is, without question, the re-incarnation of some fifteenth century explorer. Possibly of Columbus himself. His whole life seems devoted to discovery. Ditch, island, bog, or cliff, all are one to him - excuses for expeditions that invariably end in disaster.
When I showed Malcolm Carruthers' laconic telegram from Sheerness: "Got Hilda here come Saturday evening cruising Sunday bring pal" - he had, without hesitation, announced himself as the "Pal." I wired back accepting. That was Thursday. On Friday morning Malcolm rang me up. He wanted to explore the Thames and the Medway canal on our way to Sheerness. "It's awfully interesting! You go to Gravesend!! Get to Higham!!! Train to Port Victoria!!!! Cross from Garrison Point!!!!! Join the Hilda!!!!!!" Almost before I knew it, I had arranged to catch the 1.23 p.m. from Charing Cross to Gravesend on the Saturday, and the three something p.m. from Higham to Port Victoria.
Then it was that Carruthers created chaos. He telegraphed (Carruthers never writes) asking me to pilot Dora and Sallie down to Sheerness. The situation was rapidly getting beyond me. I was pledged to get to Sheerness on Saturday evening, to discover the Thames and Medway Canal with Malcolm, and now to pilot Dora and Sallie to the Hilda.
I rang up Sallie, explained, regretted, and "How lovely!" she crowed; "How perfectly lovely! Dora'll be mad with excitement. We'll be at Charing Cross at ten minutes past one!"
She rang off (that's a trick of Sallie's at critical moments), leaving me shouting wildly into the mouthpiece of the instrument. Heavens! I knew Malcolm - Salle didn't.
The Hilda is Carruthets' 200-ton barge-rigged sailing-yacht with an auxiliary motor. Sallie is Carruthers' sister. Dora is Sallie's pal and the wife of some man or other whom I have met somewhere or other and forgotten; no one would think of burdening his mind with anything belonging to Dora that she was not actually wearing at the moment. Sallie I knew to be equal to any adventure; she'll stand most things a man can, and a good deal he can't. Dora I knew nothing of, outside conventional surroundings. I distrusted her walk; its very elegance was suspicious.
I decided to say nothing to Malcolm about the additions to his expedition.
A few minutes after one on Saturday, Dora drove up to Charing Cross with only a small dressing-case, I thought well of Dora for that. Five minutes later Sallie followed with a brown paper parcel, which, by arrangement, was to go into the dressing case. I was distinctly pleased about the luggage; but the hats appalled me. They were just about as suited to tramping, or Malcolm's ideas of exploration, as to a swimming bath. One was a white-winged absurdity that forced its wearer to sit forward in the railway carriage, the other a huge circle of black straw turned up all round as if to catch the rain that was about to fall. I said nothing, but waited grimly the developments that I knew would follow. Dora and Sallie were elated.
When we arrived at Gravesend, as anyone will who believes in Kismet, they were still elated! On the way down Sallie had divided her time pretty equally between describing the salient features of Malcolm's personality (Sallie had met him once), and preventing Dora from smoking in a non-smoking compartment - I have never known Dora when she did not want to smoke.
On the platform stood Malcolm, clothed in the lightest of tweeds, wearing the sunniest of smiles, and carrying the largest of sketch-books. A sketch-book under Malcolm's arm always has the effect of exaggerating his every movement, a step becomes a stride, a deliberate movement a precipitate rush. I have never been able to understand exactly why this should be. When I explained to him Dora and Sallie he was unmoved, showing far more interest in the canal than in them. "They won't be in the way," he remarked cheerfully. Malcolm has odd ways with women. When I returned from sending on the dressing-case to Sheerness, the three were chatting and laughing merrily together.
In addition to a sketch-book, Malcolm carried an umbrella. Elsewhere I have commented on his theory of description, by which speech is subordinated to action. To-day one arm was occupied with the sketch-book, consequently there was only the umbrella hand at liberty. That umbrella was for ever in our line of vision - wet, black, and flapping. Nothing escaped Malcolm and his umbrella that day. Anything of unusual local interest such as a gas-works, or a large liner passing down river brought him to a dead stop. We had to adopt strong measures. On such occasions we left him, on the principle that unwatched dogs won't fight.
Threading our way through a network of dingy streets and alleys, where Dora and Sallie's hats aroused considerable interest and some comment, past the ferry-landing, we eventually came to the locked entrance to the Thames and Medway Canal. Once a waterway from which much was expected, which was daily to bear its thousands of tons of merchandise, it has degenerated into uselessness. A few yachts seek its basin as a harbour, a gas-works finds it convenient for obtaining supplies. Some of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood use it as a swimming bath, others for fishing - that is all.
Like a deserted city that had once throbbed with life, it now wends its lonely, sorrowful way from Gravesend to Strood. It is not aged and infirm, as might be expected, for it numbers eighty-seven years. There are no untrim banks, no green weed-encumbered waters. It is still, to all appearances, youthful and capable of performing the work for which it was ordained. It has been unlucky. Several times its direction was changed during construction, and when finished the "dues" were not popular. It saved a journey of forty-seven miles round, which involved two tides; yet it failed. Among other things it is the victim of progress. The iron road has eclipsed the waterway. The North Kent Railway (now the S. E. & Chatham Railway Company), seeing a dangerous competitor, bought and strangled it, and now it remains almost forgotton, as far as its possibilities for usefulness are concerned.
Along the left bank, starting from Gravesend, stretches a well-kept cinder path, raised above the level of the surrounding marshy country. On the left a thin streak indicates the position of the Thames, which for some miles runs beside the canal at an ever-increasing distance from it. Great ships and small can be seen slowly creeping back and forth; sometimes nothing more than their smoke-stacks, spars and a portion of their hulls rising into view, producing the weird effect of vessels cutting through green fields.
For nearly half-an-hour we plodded on. Behind us, doggedly climbing the sky, came a mass of slate-coloured cloud, grumbling its discontent and flashing its anger upon us. A train rattled along on the opposite side, throwing off clouds of steam, which, for a moment, stood out lividly white against the grey-black of the sky; then, as if in a frenzy of fear, hurriedly scattering into a thousand filmy shreds, flew before the on-coming storm. It was a despairing day. On our left an irregular fringe of Territorials were practising at the butts, but with poor success. Presently the waters of the canal caught the anger of the sky and threw back their defiance. A few drops of rain spattered down, then a deluge. Dora and I sprinted for the lock-keeper's cottage ahead. I gave one glance behind me. Malcolm was striding along under the lee of Sallie, indifferent to the grey sheet of slanting rain that was fast wetting her to the skin. Both his hands were now occupied, for the umbrella was up; but he was still striving to indicate points of interest by means of short, sharp jerks of his head. The old man by the fire, the young woman ironing, the child playing inside the open door; all were rendered speechless when Dora asked for shelter. Dora is said to have an extremely attractive bearing. The young woman was the first to recover, and, evidently unaware of the existence of the rest of our party, also being young, she suggested that we might like to shelter in the washhouse. She added no directions as to where actually the washhouse stood; but, seeing a door, we opened it and went in. A fire was smoking from the grate and had already succeeded in exhausting the last remnants of oxygen. The window was not made to open, and through the door came a flood of rain, and with it Sallie and Malcolm.