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'Come and look,' said Miss Abbey to her visitors. They all three hurried to the vacated public room, and passed by one of the windows into the wooden verandah overhanging the river.
'Does anybody down there know what has happened?' demanded Miss Abbey, in her voice of authority.
'It's a steamer, Miss Abbey,' cried one blurred figure in the fog.
'It always IS a steamer, Miss Abbey,' cried another.
'Them's her lights, Miss Abbey, wot you see a-blinking yonder,' cried another.
'She's a-blowing off her steam, Miss Abbey, and that's what makes the fog and the noise worse, don't you see?' explained another.
Boats were putting off, torches were lighting up, people were rushing tumultuously to the water's edge. Some man fell in with a splash, and was pulled out again with a roar of laughter. The drags were called for. A cry for the life-buoy passed from mouth to mouth. It was impossible to make out what was going on upon the river, for every boat that put off sculled into the fog and was lost to view at a boat's length. Nothing was clear but that the unpopular steamer was assailed with reproaches on all sides. She was the Murderer, bound for Gallows Bay; she was the Manslaughterer, bound for Penal Settlement; her captain ought to be tried for his life; her crew ran down men in row-boats with a relish; she mashed up Thames lightermen with her paddles; she fired property with her funnels; she always was, and she always would be, wreaking destruction upon somebody or something, after the manner of all her kind. The whole bulk of the fog teemed with such taunts, uttered in tones of universal hoarseness. All the while, the steamer's lights moved spectrally a very little, as she lay- to, waiting the upshot of whatever accident had happened. Now, she began burning blue-lights. These made a luminous patch about her, as if she had set the fog on fire, and in the patch--the cries changing their note, and becoming more fitful and more excited--shadows of men and boats could be seen moving, while voices shouted: 'There!' 'There again!' 'A couple more strokes a- head!' 'Hurrah!' 'Look out!' 'Hold on!' 'Haul in!' and the like. Lastly, with a few tumbling clots of blue fire, the night closed in dark again, the wheels of the steamer were heard revolving, and her lights glided smoothly away in the direction of the sea.
It appeared to Miss Abbey and her two companions that a considerable time had been thus occupied. There was now as eager a set towards the shore beneath the house as there had been from it; and it was only on the first boat of the rush coming in that it was known what had occurred.
'If that's Tom Tootle,' Miss Abbey made proclamation, in her most commanding tones, 'let him instantly come underneath here.'
The submissive Tom complied, attended by a crowd.
'What is it, Tootle?' demanded Miss Abbey.
'It's a foreign steamer, miss, run down a wherry.'
'How many in the wherry?'
'One man, Miss Abbey.'
'Yes. He's been under water a long time, Miss; but they've grappled up the body.'
'Let 'em bring it here. You, Bob Gliddery, shut the house-door and stand by it on the inside, and don't you open till I tell you. Any police down there?'
'Here, Miss Abbey,' was official rejoinder.
'After they have brought the body in, keep the crowd out, will you? And help Bob Gliddery to shut 'em out.'
'All right, Miss Abbey.'
The autocratic landlady withdrew into the house with Riah and Miss Jenny, and disposed those forces, one on either side of her, within the half-door of the bar, as behind a breastwork.
'You two stand close here,' said Miss Abbey, 'and you'll come to no hurt, and see it brought in. Bob, you stand by the door.'
That sentinel, smartly giving his rolled shirt-sleeves an extra and a final tuck on his shoulders, obeyed.
Sound of advancing voices, sound of advancing steps. Shuffle and talk without. Momentary pause. Two peculiarly blunt knocks or pokes at the door, as if the dead man arriving on his back were striking at it with the soles of his motionless feet.
'That's the stretcher, or the shutter, whichever of the two they are carrying,' said Miss Abbey, with experienced ear. 'Open, you Bob!'
Door opened. Heavy tread of laden men. A halt. A rush. Stoppage of rush. Door shut. Baffled boots from the vexed souls of disappointed outsiders.
'Come on, men!' said Miss Abbey; for so potent was she with her subjects that even then the bearers awaited her permission. 'First floor.'
The entry being low, and the staircase being low, they so took up the burden they had set down, as to carry that low. The recumbent figure, in passing, lay hardly as high as the half door.
Miss Abbey started back at sight of it. 'Why, good God!' said she, turning to her two companions, 'that's the very man who made the declaration we have just had in our hands. That's Riderhood!'
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Our Mutual Friend -- by Charles Dickens