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The Un-Commercial Traveler

Chatham Dockyard
There are some small out-of-the-way landing places on the Thames and the Medway,
where I do much of my summer idling. Running water is favourable to day-dreams, and a
strong tidal river is the best of running water for mine. I like to watch the great ships
standing out to sea or coming home richly laden, the active little steam-tugs confidently
puffing with them to and from the sea- horizon, the fleet of barges that seem to have
plucked their brown and russet sails from the ripe trees in the landscape, the heavy old
colliers, light in ballast, floundering down before the tide, the light screw barks and
schooners imperiously holding a straight course while the others patiently tack and go
about, the yachts with their tiny hulls and great white sheets of canvas, the little sailing-
boats bobbing to and fro on their errands of pleasure or business, and - as it is the nature
of little people to do - making a prodigious fuss about their small affairs. Watching these
objects, I still am under no obligation to think about them, or even so much as to see
them, unless it perfectly suits my humour. As little am I obliged to hear the plash and flop
of the tide, the ripple at my feet, the clinking windlass afar off, or the humming steam-
ship paddles further away yet. These, with the creaking little jetty on which I sit, and the
gaunt high-water marks and low-water marks in the mud, and the broken causeway, and
the broken bank, and the broken stakes and piles leaning forward as if they were vain of
their personal appearance and looking for their reflection in the water, will melt into any
train of fancy. Equally adaptable to any purpose or to none, are the posturing sheep and
kine upon the marshes, the gulls that wheel and dip around me, the crows (well out of
gunshot) going home from the rich harvest-fields, the heron that has been out a-fishing
and looks as melancholy, up there in the sky, as if it hadn't agreed with him. Everything
within the range of the senses will, by the aid of the running water, lend itself to
everything beyond that range, and work into a drowsy whole, not unlike a kind of tune,
but for which there is no exact definition.
One of these landing-places is near an old fort (I can see the Nore Light from it with my
pocket-glass), from which fort mysteriously emerges a boy, to whom I am much indebted
for additions to my scanty stock of knowledge. He is a young boy, with an intelligent face
burnt to a dust colour by the summer sun, and with crisp hair of the same hue. He is a boy
in whom I have perceived nothing incompatible with habits of studious inquiry and
meditation, unless an evanescent black eye (I was delicate of inquiring how occasioned)
should be so considered. To him am I indebted for ability to identify a Custom-house
boat at any distance, and for acquaintance with all the forms and ceremonies observed by
a homeward-bound Indiaman coming up the river, when the Custom-house officers go
aboard her. But for him, I might never have heard of 'the dumb-ague,' respecting which
malady I am now learned. Had I never sat at his feet, I might have finished my mortal
career and never known that when I see a white horse on a barge's sail, that barge is a
lime barge. For precious secrets in reference to beer, am I likewise beholden to him,
involving warning against the beer of a certain establishment, by reason of its having
turned sour through failure in point of demand: though my young sage is not of opinion
that similar deterioration has befallen the ale. He has also enlightened me touching the
mushrooms of the marshes, and has gently reproved my ignorance in having supposed