Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Ch. 54

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Chapter LIV

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade. We had out pea-coats with us, and I took a bag. Of all my worldly possessions I took no more than the few necessaries that filled the bag. Where I might go, what I might do, or when I might return, were questions utterly unknown to me; nor did I vex my mind with them, for it was wholly set on Provis's safety. I only wondered for the passing moment, as I stopped at the door and looked back, under what altered circumstances I should next see those rooms, if ever.

We loitered down to the Temple stairs, and stood loitering there, as if we were not quite decided to go upon the water at all. Of course, I had taken care that the boat should be ready and everything in order. After a little show of indecision, which there were none to see but the two or three amphibious creatures belonging to our Temple stairs, we went on board and cast off; Herbert in the bow, I steering. It was then about high-water,—half-past eight.

Our plan was this. The tide, beginning to run down at nine, and being with us until three,h we intended still to creep on after it had turned, and row against it until dark. We should then be well in those long reaches below Gravesend, between Kent and Essex, where the river is broad and solitary, where the water-side inhabitants are very few, and where lone public-houses are scattered here and there, of which we could choose one for a resting-place. There, we meant to lie by all night. The steamer for Hamburg and the steamer for Rotterdam would start from London at about nine on Thursday morning. We should know at what time to expect them, according to where we were, and would hail the first; so that, if by any accident we were not taken abroad, we should have another chance. We knew the distinguishing marks of each vessel.

The relief of being at last engaged in the execution of the purpose was so great to me that I felt it difficult to realize the condition in which I had been a few hours before. The crisp air, the sunlight, the movement on the river, and the moving river itself,—the road that ran with us, seeming to sympathize with us, animate us, and encourage us on,—freshened me with new hope. I felt mortified to be of so little use in the boat; but, there were few better oarsmen than my two friends, and they rowed with a steady stroke that was to last all day.

At that time, the steam-traffic on the Thames was far below its present extent, and watermen's boats were far more numerous. Of barges, sailing colliers,w and coasting-traders, there were perhaps, as many as now; but of steam-ships, great and small, not a tithe or a twentieth part so many. Early as it was, there were plenty of scullersw going here and there that morning, and plenty of barges dropping down with the tide; the navigation of the river between bridges, in an open boat, was a much easier and commoner matter in those days than it is in these; and we went ahead among many skiffs and wherriesw briskly.

Old London Bridge was soon passed, and old Billingsgate Marketw with its oyster-boats and Dutchmen, and the White Tower and Traitor's Gate,h and we were in among the tiers of shipping. Here were the Leith, Aberdeen, and Glasgow steamers, loading and unloading goods, and looking immensely high out of the water as we passed alongside; here, were colliers by the score and score, with the coal-whippersw plunging off stages on deck, as counterweights to measures of coal swinging up, which were then rattled over the side into barges; here, at her moorings was to-morrow's steamer for Rotterdam, of which we took good notice; and here to-morrow's for Hamburg, under whose bowsprit we crossed. And now I, sitting in the stern, could see, with a faster beating heart, Mill Pond Bank and Mill Pond stairs.

"Is he there?" said Herbert.

"Not yet."

X [h] The tide, beginning to run down at nine, and …

Dickens' concern for accuracy respecting the tides and geography included his researching the matter with tide tables, which he preserved with the novel's manuscript. 

X [w] colliers,

Transportation

Ships transporting coal.

X [w] scullers

Transportation

Boats propelled by a pair of sculls, which are shorter and lighter than conventional rowing oars.

X [w] skiffs and wherries

Transportation

A skiff is a small boat that can be rowed or sailed. A wherry is "a light rowing boat" used chiefly on rivers to carry goods and passengers.

X [w] old Billingsgate Market

Places

London's principal fish market, on the north side of the Thames and adjacent to the Customs House that Pip mentioned earlier.  

X [h] White Tower and Traitor's Gate,

Places

The White Tower was also the keep, the strongest, most secure part of the castle, which contained the dungeon. The White Tower, first begun as a timber-frame building in 1066 by William the Conqueror and then continued in a second stage in 1076-79, came to be known as the Tower of London. …

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X [w] coal-whippers

People

Men who unload coal from a ship by means of a block and tackle.