Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Wilds of London, by James Greenwood, 1874 - With a Night Cabman

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WITH A NIGHT CABMAN.

IT was nearly one in the morning when I sought him, and the melancholy, drizzling rain that had set in with the preceding evening still continued, and there was a chilly wind blowing, and it was very dark. His was the only cab on the rank, and he was invisible. I knew where to find him, however. I tapped at the closed sash, and immediately ensued a rustling of straw and the sounds of a decidedly unamiable voice, crying "Hullo!" which I was sorry to hear, my business with him being of an unusual character, and one the revelation of which to a man roused from his sleep and savage might not be courteously entertained.
    "Is it a job? he demanded, in a muffled voice.
    "Something in that way."
    "Beg pardon, sir thought p'r'aps it might be a lark. Where to, sir?"
    I was glad to discover that he was a little man and gray-haired. Likewise that he was lame of a leg, as might be told by his crabbish way of shuffling out of the vehicle. It was possible that when I told him what it was I wanted he might regard it as a "lark," and demand immediate satisfaction.
    "Where to, sir?"
    "Well, the fact is, I wish to go nowhere in particular. The case is this - It is my misfortune to - "
    " I knows all about it, sir," he interrupted; "taint the first job of that sort I've had. Key of the street! Well, it is orkard. [-108-] Never mind, sir; jump in. It ain't like the down beds and woolly blankets like what you've got at home, but the cushions is warm, and there's no draught to speak of. What time shall I wake you sir? I'll put the mare down the road a mile or so, and perhaps that'll rock you off."
    It is evident that he mistook me for an unlucky dog shut out of his legitimate lodgings and anxious to stow away for the remainder of the night at the rather expensive rate of two shillings an hour. He was considerably astonished when I told him it was my desire to sit outside the cab, and not inside - to keep him company, in fact, through the small hours, with a view to gratifying my curiosity as to the sort of business done in his peculiar line. It was some time before I could persuade him that I was in earnest, but, that difficulty overcome, no other presented itself.
    I had a wicker-covered flask in my pocket ; and presently John Barlow, badge 987,654, and myself were chatting together, as we sat on the driving-seat, as affably as though we lived in the same street, and had taken our licences out on the same day. It was some time, however, before we found a fare, and meanwhile the discourse turned on the two subjects nearest John Barlow's heart - the old brown mare in the shafts and his old woman at home. Concerning the former, he startled me with the information that, considering her age, and the fact of her having only three legs, she was a wonder. I looked down, and, finding that the mare apparently had four legs, asked him to explain.
    "Ah I if you count that thing on the off side she's got four ; but I don't call that a leg, it's only a swinger, and been nothing but a swinger this nine years, to my knowledge," said Mr. Barlow. "It's awfully agin her, that leg is."
    "Something appears to be against her," I remarked. "Is it her appetite ? She's rather bony, isn't she?"
    "It's all owin' to that leg. Her appetite's all that can be [-109-] desired, and a jolly sight more so than is conwenient sometimes," replied he ; but it's that leg that beats her. Oftentimes when we've had a run o' luck, I've got it in my 'art to stand a quartern of beans to the old gal, but I daresent ; they'd get into them three sound legs of hers and make her so sarsy that she'd forget to be keerful of her lame pin, and lay herself up."
    "Is she your own?"
    "No ; I only drives her. I ain't my own master."
    I might have known that without asking. No man that was his own master would drive a night cab, I should think. "
    "You're right. I shouldn't, o'ny that I'm so awfully eat up with rheumatism."
    "You are joking."
    "Am I? Lord send I was!" And he shook his head in a manner more convincing than his words.
    "You'll excuse my incredulity," said I " but you must admit that being eat up with rheumatism is not commonly made grounds for preferring to pass the night out of doors rather than in one's warm bed at home."
    "Well, it do seem strange to them as has the enjoyment of their limbs, I dessay. When you're brought to hate your bed, to cus it cos of its warmth, and you gets no more comfort out of sheets and blankets than if they was harsh and raspy as sole- skins, it makes a difference. That's just my case. And my old woman as I was speaking about just now, she works at a ropery up Bermondsey way - on her legs from morning till night, poor old creeter, and coming home as tired as a dawg. Well, nat'rally she wants sleep, and how's she goin' to get it with me alongside of her rilin' and groanin' with rheumatics? That's how the bed serves me ; dye see, sir ? Soon as I get warm it gets at my bones like rats a gnawing at a wainscot. She's agin my coming out, and takes on a bit; but it don't do to let a woman get the upper hand of you, so I sez, 'If you jaw till a blue moon it Won't alter me. You go to bed and get your bit of rest like [-110-] you ought to, and I'll go out, which rainin' pitchforks I'd as lief and liefer do than lay there being gnawed, and I'll have a spell in the day time when I've got the crib to myself, and ain't an annoyance to anybody.'"
    And John Barlow, of that ruffianly, blackguardly, bullying race known as cabmen, shook his head determinedly, and put on as ferocious an expression of face as had doubtless accompanied his tyrannical speech to the old woman, who, it is to be hoped, was by this time asleep and resting her ropewalk-weary legs, while that rheumatic old hero her husband sat out in the dark and the cold. He was quite unconscious that he was a hero - (all real heroes should be, I suppose) - and had no idea of how uncomfortable he was making me, or perhaps he would not have talked so. Would it ever come into my selfish mind, supposing I was stricken with John Barlow's malady, to take my bed into the back kitchen, that my wife in an upper bedroom might enjoy undisturbed repose? It was quite a relief to me that at this moment a frantic voice calling "Cab!" was heard in our rear, immediately followed by the appearance of a young man, with his greatcoat buttoned awry and a comforter wrapped slovenly about his neck. With a chuckle, quite cheering to hear from a man so afflicted, John Barlow whispered in my ear, "Mrs. Gamp, I'll wager," and shuffled off his seat to attend to his customer.
    "I knowed it was," said he, as, after receiving certain hasty instructions from his fare, he shuffled up to his seat again; "it's a extryornary thing that kids, twice out of three times, are born in the night; now, when I was a young man-" Bang went the window.
    "Can't you whip him up faster than that, cabby? Put the steam on, that's a good chap. What the - does that fellow want on the box with you?"
    "He's my reg'lar fare, and is letting you ride as a favour, sir; you ain't obliged to ride with him if you don't like," replied John Barlow, gruffly.
    [-111-] "Oh, I beg his pardon, I'm sure; he'd excuse me if he only knew. First to the right, cabman, and stop at the green lamp. put him along, that's a good fellow."
    Mr. Barlow shook his head compassionately, and gave the old brown mare a taste of whipcord.
    "It's the first, I'll lay a farden," said he ; "they taksc it much easier when it come to five or six."
    I think it must have been the young man's "first." Arrived at the green lamp, he sprang out like a cat at a mouse, and began hauling away at the brass-headed bell-pull, and never ceased to haul away at it till an upper window was opened, and a night-capped head thrust out.
    "Who's there?"
    "Buskin Street, please; if you wouldn't mind being as quick as possible, doctor."
    "Ay, ay, I'll be quick enough; don't wait." And the window was closed leisurely.
    "Goin' any further, sir?" asked Mr. Barlow.
    "I'm going to stop here a minute or two," replied the young man, with stern resolution in his tone, and evidently chafing under the doctor's cool treatment of his important mission. "Do you see a light in his window, cabman?"
    "No ; he's gone to bed agin, I think, sir," answered Mr. Barlow, with a malice that contrasted strangely with his tenderness for his old woman.
    "That's pretty, upon my soul!" exclaimed the young man, excitedly, and once more he flew at the bell.
    Again the window opened.
    "My good man, I cannot come till I put my clothes on ; I cannot, indeed," exclaimed the doctor, with a calmness that was wonderful under the circumstances.
    "I should think it was all right now, cabman? Drive hard to 69, Jerusalem Street."
    Jerusalem Street was not far from the doctor's, and we were [-112-] there in a very few minutes. The young man didn't knock at the door, however; he felt for little stones in the road, and threw them up at the first-floor window. It was as though somebody within had been lying awake and expecting him. The window was raised, and a female head protruded.
    "Is that you, Joe ?"
    "All right, mother; come on."
    "How is she? How long as she been bad, Joe ?"
    "It is all right; come along," answered Joseph, looking sheepishly towards us, and addressing his parent in a whisper, half persuasive, half remonstrative.
    "Joseph, is Mary Ann's mother there? Because if so -"
    "Oh, bother There's nobody there, I tell you; come on, if you're coining." And, to avoid further public interrogation, Joseph dived into the cab, and shut the door.
    His mother, as a dresser, was swift. In less than five minutes she was heard unbolting the street door.
    "Well, of all the strange things that ever happened," she began, as she closed the door, and continued on her way from the house steps to the vehicle- "of all the strange things that ever happened this bangs all. It was only last night that I said to your father, Something strikes me that Joe's wife will be bad to-night. I'll lay a shilling -"
    The cab door shut in the remainder of the prophecy.
    Relieved of its load at 44, Buskin Street (at the door of which, I am happy to tell, the doctor's gig was standing), our cab was once more for hire. It did not remain so long. Turning the corner of the Street there was a merry party of four - two men and two women - who frankly informed Mr. Barlow that they had just come from a raffle, and had two miles to go, and would give him each sixpence if he would carry them that distance. Mr. Barlow was nothing averse, and the brown mare, warmed by her first job (and always considering that she had but three legs), did this stiffish piece of work in a very gallant manner.
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After this there was a lull, and, jogging leisurely down the road, Mr. Barlow gave me some curious particulars concerning the cabbing interest. How that Hansoms (sho'fuls he called them) had to bring home-to their masters-fifteen shillings a day if they were "long-day men" (that is, if they came home in the afternoon and took a fresh horse, remaining out till twelve o'clock at night); all they "made" over that being their earnings. "Four-wheelers," he informed me, "took in twelve shillings for the same time, and night cabs from seven shillings to nine - the master holding the man's driving licence as security for the day's money. "
    "I suppose it invariably happens that a man is able to earn at least his master's money ?" I remarked.
    "Does it Lor' bless your soul, sir why, in the winter time 'short money' is a common thing with us. Many a time have I had ten hours of it, and after all been 'bliged to pawn something for a couple of shillin's or half-a-crown to make up the gaffer's money - (he called his master the "gaffer") - without so touch as a single oat for myself. I know dozens of men who have had to do the same."
    "But, supposing that you take in only what you have earned ?"
    "Well, if it ain't up to the mark, 'cording to the contract, they sack you, and hold your licence till you pay up. I was chocked on my back on'y last Christmas time for three days, all through taking a bad half-sovereign."
    "And how much do you count on earning as a night cabman?"
    "Well, if I can tot up seventeen or eighteen shillings at the end of the week, I'm lucky."
    At a quarter to three we got another fare. A woman, flashily dressed and drenched with rain, with a fashionable hat adorned with a wreath of green flowers, the colour of which was washing out and trickling down her face - not improving it, for it was a [-114-] face pale with passion, and set with a pair of once beautiful eyes, glaring with gin and indignation.
    "I want to go to Clerkenwell; how much ?" she snapped out savagely.
    "Only yourself ?"
    "D'ye see anybody else? Do you?" - and she turned fiercely to look in the direction she thought Mr. Barlow was looking- "Curse him! I wish I could see him, the shabby rascal I I'll mark him if ever I meet him again, sure as my name's Loo. How much to Clerkenwell?"
    Mr. Barlow told her that the fare was eighteenpence, whereon she turned her back and counted her money by the light of a lamp.
    "I shan't have a mag left for a glass of gin in the morning, if I give you eighteenpence," said she. "Won't you take fifteen ?"
    Instigated by me, Mr. Barlow said that he would. We set her down at the end of a decent street near the Angel.
    "Hadn't I better take you to the door ?" Mr. Barlow suggested.
    "I think you had," replied she, with an ugly laugh ; "that would be a good wind-up to the night's luck!"1 and away she scudded, and was presently out of sight.
    Our next fare was not a pleasant one. He was seemingly standing by, but, as it afterwards proved, leaning against a lamppost when he hailed us; and when we drew up, without waiting for Mr. Barlow to get down, he slammed open the cab door and tumbled in. He was a tall, heavy fellow, and the springs of the night cab creaked as lie flung himself down on the seat. Poor Mr. Barlow looked rueful as he descended to receive the commands of the big, tipsy man.
    But he could make nothing of him. It seemed that he had recently come out of a row, in which his gentility had been called in question; for as soon as Mr.  Barlow inquired where [-115-] he wanted to go, with thick, drunken utterance he threatened to smash Mr. Barlow's head with his walking-stick if he dare say another word imputing that he wasn't a gentleman. Then he hung his head on his breast, and began to snore.
    "Come, this won't do, you know," exclaimed Mr. Barlow, waxing indignant. "You'll have to get out, or tell me where to drive you."
    "Drive to ----."
    Mr. Barlow's wrath now exceeded his prudence. He placed his hand on the drunken man's collar, and the drunken man hit out at him with the knob end of his walking-stick, and crash it went through a window.
    "If I were you I should drive him to a police station," I suggested.
    "That's what I will do," said Mr. Barlow, shutting the drunken ruffian in, and mounting the driver's seat. But the crash of the glass and the mention of the police station revived the fellow a little, and, with his head out at the broken window, he protested against being treated in any way that was ungentlemanly, offering at the same time to pay the damage if he were driven to his residence in 'Slo Sreet, Shelse,' which Mr. Barlow interpreted to mean Sloane Street, Chelsea - distant something over five miles from where we were - at the same time exhibiting a porte-- monnaie in proof of his ability to pay. I still inclined to the opinion that we had better drive him to the station-house ; but my partner whispered that he thought it would be all right; so away we went.
    Happily, it was growing towards daylight when we reached "Slo Street," as it enabled our fare, slowly recovering from his drunkenness, to make out certain landmarks, pointing to his residence. By-and-by he bundled out, and, still staggering, blundered up the steps of a house with his latch-key in his hand. He was cunning enough, however, to know how many miles he had ridden.
    [-116-] "How much?" he asked, once more taking out the porte-monnaie.
    Mr. Barlow's eyes twinkled with expectancy.
    "Well, say four shillings the fare, sir, and another four for the glas s -it's plate-glass, sir, and will cost all that," he replied, civilly.
    Our fare looked tip with a sneer on his very unhandsome countenance, and then, clapping a forefinger to the side of his nose, like the vulgar ruffian he undoubtedly was (I hope he may read this) exclaimed-
    "What dye take me for? Five miles, at sixpence a mile, is half a crown. Here's the money. As for the broken window, summon for that, and be ----"
    And with that he swung open his door and swung it to again with a bang in poor Mr. Barlow's distressed face. The outraged cabman did not knock at the door, as I am quite sure I should have done had I been in his place. Pocketing the shabby fellow's half-crown, he slowly mounted the box again.
    "He's one of the blessings a night cabman meets, sir."
    "But of course you will summon him ?"
    "Where's the use? I should only get my knuckles rapped for carrying a drunken man. No, sir ; I am all a shilling out by my gentleman, and I must swaller it."
    Mr. Barlow's next job was to drive me home, and when he left me at half-past six am, he told me he was going to Euston Square to try and pick up an early train job. I hope he found one, and that afterwards he went home and rested his poor rheumatic bones, with his bed all to himself and without being an annoyance to any one.

source: James Greenwood, The Wilds of London, 1874