The three men get to Reading, a fairly dismal town. J. tells the reader that it was the place that the English Parliament used to convene whenever London seemed too dangerous. They bump into some friends of theirs riding a steam-launch and are very happy to receive a tow (which J. claims to prefer rowing anyway).
The men aren’t very committed to their hatred of steam launches and are quite happy to hitch a ride from one when it’s being piloted by one of their friends. Their opinion that steam-launches are inauthentic probably rests on the fact that they rarely get the chance to use one.
Past Reading, they go by more small towns, and a house in which Charles I played bowls. The steam-launch has to go another way, so it leaves the three men. They start arguing again about who should do the rowing.
This scene presents an image of a royal at leisure—one that J. can enjoy. Frustration quickly surfaces again as the men continue to debate who should do the hard work.
Their argument is quickly cut short when George notices something black floating on the water. They draw closer and George pulls it in. He lets out a cry: it’s the body of a dead woman.
This is the most poignant moment of the book. Suddenly all the men’s foibles and stories are rendered insignificant by what the river presents to them.
J. talks about the woman’s face, saying it is “gentle” and “lovable” but with signs of “pinch and poverty,” and the woman looks like someone who has found “restful peace” after their pain is over. Some men come and take charge of the body. Later the three men learn that the woman had either deceived or been deceiver by her lover, and that her family and friends had turned their backs on her.
The woman represents death, and briefly shows up the innocuous and superficial nature of much of the men’s story so far. J. observes the pain on the woman’s face, and his prose here feels much convincing and authentic than throughout the rest of the book. The episode shows that, away from all this wrangling over leisure, real life is taking place and it’s not always as carefree for others as it is for the men.
The woman had worked twelve-hour days for little money in order to take care of her and her child, but became increasingly distraught and exhausted. Eventually her situation got the better of her and she committed suicide. Still shaken by what they’ve seen, the three men continue with their journey, arriving at Goring.
J. shows respect for the dead woman by making this the shortest chapter in the book. Such is her tragedy that it doesn’t seem right to fill the chapter with the kind of anecdotes seen elsewhere, and instead the story gives her a kind of memorial pause.