In contrast to the throbbing arteries of Holborn and Fleet Street, the river soothed his nerves and lent tranquillity to his mind. Following the Embankment, which was shrouded in heavy darkness, he reached the spot where Cleopatra’s Needle, which once looked on the majesty of ancient Egypt, stands, a sentinel of incongruity, on the edge of London’s river. Giving way to a momentary whim, Selwyn paused, and finding a spot that was sheltered from the sleet, sat down and leaned against the monument.
In the masque of night he could just make out the sketchy forms of a river-barge and two steamers anchored a few yards out. From their masts he could see the dull glow of red where a meagre lamp was hung, and he heard the hoarse voice of a man calling out to some one across the river. As if in answer, the rattle of a chain came from the deck of some unseen craft, like a lonely felon in a floating prison.
The river’s mood was so in keeping with his own that Selwyn’s senses experienced a numbing pleasure; the ghostly mariners of the night, the motionless ships at their moorings, the eerie hissing of the sleet upon the water, combined to form a drug that left his eyelids heavy with drowsy contentment.
How long he had remained there he could not have stated, when from the steps beneath him, leading towards the water, he heard a man’s slovenly voice.
‘Are you going to stay the night here?’
As apparently the remark was intended for him, Selwyn leaned forward and peered in the direction from which the voice had come. At the foot of the dripping steps he could just make out a huddled figure.
‘If you’re putting up here,’ went on the speaker, ’we had better pool resources. I’ve got a cape, and if you have a coat we can make a decent shift of it. Two sleep warmer than one on a night like this.’
In spite of the sluggish manner of speech, Selwyn could detect a faint intonation which bespoke a man of breeding. He tried to discern the features, but they were completely hidden beneath the pall of night.
‘Well,’ said the voice, ‘are you deaf?’
‘I am not staying here for the night,’ answered Selwyn.
‘Then why the devil didn’t you say that before?’ For a moment the fellow’s voice was energised by a touch of brusqueness, but before the last words were finished it had lapsed into the dull heaviness of physical lethargy. ‘Tell me,’ said the stranger, after a silence of several minutes, ‘how is the war going on?’
‘You probably know as much as I.’
’Not likely. I’ve been beating back from China for three months in a more or less derelict tramp. Chased into every blessed little port, losing our way, and cruising for days without water—we were a fine family of blackguards, and no mistake. Grog could be had for the asking, and a scrap for less than that; but I’d as lief not ship on the Nancy Hawkins again.’