Read an Excerpt
Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain. Out in the country, over field and fen and moorland, sweet-smelling rain, borne on the wind. Rain in London, rolling along gutters, gurgling down drains. Street lamps blurred by rain. A policeman walking by in a cape, rain gleaming silver on its shoulders. Rain bouncing on roofs and pavements, soft rain falling secretly in woodland and on dark heath. Rain on London’s river, and slanting among the sheds, wharves and quays. Rain on suburban gardens, dense with laurel and rhododendron. Rain from north to south and from east to west, as though it had never rained until now, and now might never stop.
Rain on all the silent streets and squares, alleys and courts, gardens and churchyards and stone steps and nooks and crannies of the city.
Rain. London. The back end of the year.
But to me it was delightful and infinitely strange. There had been no such rain in Africa, India, the Far East, those countries in which I had spent as much of my life as I could remember. There had been only heat and dryness for month after month, followed abruptly by monsoon, when the sky gathered and then burst like a boil and sheets of rain deluged the earth, turning it to mud, roaring like a yellow river, hot, thunderous rain that made the air sweat and steam. Rain that beat down upon the world like a mad thing and then ceased, leaving only debris in its wake.
I had heard occasional visitors from England speak of this blessed, steady, gentle rain, and at such times, a faint half-memory, like the shadow left by a dream, stirred, and came almost to the surface of my consciousness, before drifting out of reach again. And now I was here, alone in that London rain, in the autumn of my fortieth year.
My ship had docked earlier that day. My fellow passengers had crowded to the rail to watch our progress toward land and the first sight of those loved ones who awaited them. But I, who knew no one, and had no friends or family to greet me, had stayed back, half curious, half afraid, and full of a sudden fondness for the ship that had been my home for the past weeks. For I had no other now. The east was behind me, my life there over. Although I had certain vague plans, and a task I had more or less set myself, the future, and this England, were unknown.
The ship’s siren boomed, and was answered from onshore. Hats went up into the air.
I turned then and gazed back down the long dark ribbon of London’s river that led away to sea, and felt for that moment utterly dejected, and as bleak-spirited and lonely as I had felt in my life.
My story up to that date may be told briefly enough. I knew only that I had been sent abroad from England when I was five years old, after the death of my parents, of whom I had no recollection at all, and about whom I knew nothing.
My past memories were all of life as a young boy in Africa, with the man who was my Guardian, and called so by me. He told me that he had been an old friend of my mother’s family, no more, and until his own death, when I was seventeen, he never spoke to me at all about my birth, early upbringing, home or family. Those places and people, those first years of my life, might never have been, and such faint memories as I had of them I must quickly have learned to suppress for my own peace of mind—and so they became quite buried.
Whether I had been happy or unhappy, what I had been before, I also did not know. Only in dreams, sometimes, or those odd, fleeting moments of half-awareness, did I catch a fragment of some mood, some inner sense or feeling or vision—I am uncertain what to call it—which I assumed, because it bore no relation to anything in my present life or the world now about me, must be related to those early years of my life in England.
My Guardian was at that time living in the hills of Northern Kenya, and it is from there that my first conscious memories date. We lived in a roomy, airy bungalow on a farm, and I went to an elementary school in the town twenty miles away. The education I received there was less than adequate, though I think that I enjoyed my days well enough. My Guardian possessed a good, solid, middlebrow library which I had the run of, and it was through this that I made up for many of the gaps in my school learning.
But, although I found some solace and company in books, I was at heart an outdoor boy, living a life in the open air for as much of the time as I could manage, running half-wild, taking in all the sights and sounds and glories of that most liberating and beautiful country.
From Kenya, after some years, we went to India, and thence to Ceylon, where it was proposed that I learn the tea trade. But I found the idea of traveling further, to remote and romantic places, more to my taste than the prospect of settling down to any sort of career, and secretly, I began to plan for myself the life of a nomad, full of exploration and adventure. I had read in particular about the journeys and work of a man I came to regard as one of the greatest of all pioneering travelers. His name was Conrad Vane. I began to pore over piles of maps, books and charts, in the evenings, planning my own future journeys.
When I was seventeen years old, my Guardian was taken very suddenly ill, and, as is the way with many a man who contracts one of the dreadful fevers and agues that strike without warning in those countries, went from robust health to the point of death, in barely twenty-four hours.
I could not pretend to have loved him deeply. But, although he was a reserved, somewhat somber man, for ten years he had been the nearest to a father I had had. I respected him, liked him, though we were never especially close, and I had never confided to him any of the secrets of my innermost heart and mind.
But to stand at his bedside in the close, steamy air of the bungalow and see his face a dreadful, waxen color, gleaming with sweat, the flesh already somehow shrunk back, to outline more clearly the skull beneath, shocked and distressed me greatly. I was trying to frame some words of affection but the sentences would not form, and when I next looked down at him, his eyes were staring up at me blankly. He was dead.
For the next twenty years I had traveled, in India and all over Africa, to Burma, Singapore, Malaya, and finally in the remotest areas of China. At first, my traveling had been more or less without purpose, but soon, I had begun to fulfill my ambition of following in the footsteps of Conrad Vane. As I journeyed, I educated myself, by talking to any man I encountered, by living native, and by keeping my eyes and ears open. I also read whatever I could in the history and literature, lore and legends of those countries, and I picked up enough of several languages to serve me reasonably well. I belonged everywhere and nowhere, I was a nomad, and I was always, in the truest sense, alone. It was a strange, exciting, satisfying life. But it came to an abrupt end when I contracted a debilitating illness in Penang and, during the course of many long, weary weeks, had come to realize that I was finally done with traveling from place to place, I was a middle-aged man and had seen everything I had ever planned to see, and above all, had undertaken virtually every journey Vane himself had made. Indeed, so carefully and closely had I followed in his footsteps, some twenty-odd years after his death, that at times I identified with him, felt myself almost to be Vane.
In those two score years, I had occasionally met people from England, and had listened intently to their talk about it. Now, I conceived a longing to go back there (for I knew, what my Guardian had briefly told me, that I was an Englishman born and that had been my early home). I did not formulate any definite plans, had no idea where I might settle when I arrived. I had money, held in trust for me by my Guardian and passed to me on his death, along with such funds and belongings as he himself had had, and I had lived frugally, these past years; there was more than enough to pay for my passage, and bring me in a modest income. Above all, I wanted to discover more about the early life of Conrad Vane, before he had embarked on his travels and begun to write about them—for he, too, had been an exiled Englishman—and I had some idea of paying my eventual tribute to him in a book. I felt that he and his work had been neglected, and was now in danger of being entirely forgotten.
When I was strong enough, therefore, I sold most of my possessions, packed up the rest—there was precious little to show for the past twenty years—and booked my passage.
And now, here I was, alone in the London rain, on that drear and melancholy night.
The bulk of my belongings were to be stored at the dock, and I carried only an old canvas grip containing enough to see me through a day or so. I planned to find rooms as quickly as I could, so that I might lodge in London until I had my bearings, and could see my way ahead more clearly. For now, I obtained from the shipping company offices a couple of addresses of inns at which I might put up. At first, they had assumed that I would want to stay in one of the smarter areas of the city, but I had indicated that I would feel more comfortable in some plain, workaday place close by the river. I was not accustomed to fancy furniture and feather beds. After discussion between themselves, the clerks had decided on names, and warned me against picking out any other places for myself, en route. I rejected all suggestions of a porter to accompany me, and, armed with my bag and the slip of paper, walked out from the warehouses and sheds, through some great gates, and found myself at once in a warren of narrow streets.
It was early afternoon but already the light was fading and darkness drawing in. A chill wind sneaked down alleyways and passages off the river. The houses were grimy, shiny and black-roofed with rain, mean and poor and ugly, and regularly interspersed with more, looming, sheds. The air was filled with the hooting of tugs and a plaintive siren, and there was the constant thump of boxes onto the wharves.
Few were about, though here and there, in half-open doorways and up dark snickets, I glimpsed a solitary figure, or a huddle of ragged children. Once or twice only, a cab went by, but at a great rate, as if anxious to be clear of these particular streets.
But although it was grim enough and cold and damp too, I had begun to feel immensely cheerful, and unworried. I had been alone in far shadier backstreets than these, in the cities of the east, and besides, the very act of walking freely after the weeks of being confined on board ship was a pleasure enough.
A couple of times I passed rough-looking public houses and a glance inside revealed to me the sort of places the shipping company clerks had warned me away from, but at this time of day, there were few drinkers, and the rooms looked uninviting enough in the sour light.
After taking some wrong turnings and having to retrace my steps, I came upon Keypack Hythe Street and, almost by accident, the door of the Cross Keys. By now, the rain had eased to a light drizzle, and there was a sudden parting in the clouds to let through a last few watery rays of sun, which flared briefly onto the narrow windows. I stopped and set down my bag. Ahead of me, under the painted inn sign, was a heavy wooden door, with a latch, reached down half a dozen worn steps from the street.
I turned, and looked about me. To the east, where the sky was dark, the black lines of the warehouses were almost blotted out. To the west, at my back, the blood-red streaks of cloud and the setting sun. I felt inquisitive, keyed up with the interest and excitement that foreign surroundings always induced in me, and in a sense I felt at home too, for although this was a new, colder air than I was used to, there is something familiar about any port to a seasoned traveler—the sights, smells, activities, even the sprawl of streets and wharves that surround and owe their existence and livelihood to it. I was merely used to a closer, steamier air, and to the stink of the east.
As I stood, getting my bearings, studying the houses about me, my eye was caught by some slight movement at the corner, and I glimpsed a figure. It seemed to be that of a boy, some twelve or thirteen years old, thin, with a pale face above a dirty, collarless shirt. For a second, no more, I saw him look full at me, and then past me quickly, as if anxious or afraid to meet my eye. But then I saw that the sun, having flared up again suddenly against the windows, was the next second extinguished, snuffed out like a candle, as it set behind streaked storm clouds. When I looked back, the boy was gone, I supposed disappeared up the slit between the houses, and the narrow street was in darkness