[... back to menu for this book]
IN AND ON AN OMNIBUS.
I SUPPOSE - the lamentable failure of his tercentenary
notwithstanding - it will be considered creditable to have shared a few thoughts
with the late Shakespeare. On more than one occasion I have detected myself
uttering sentiments which were identical with some enunciated by that bard,
differing merely in the language in which they were expressed, as might be
expected when it is considered that the late Shakespeare was a poetical party ;
while I pride myself on being an eminently practical man. Besides, if I may so
say, my illustrations have been brought down to the present time, and are
impregnated. with the terse wit and playful symbolical humour of the day ;
whereas our friend S.'s are, to say the truth, somewhat rococo and
old-fashioned. You will see what I mean when I quote one of my last, a saying
which was hailed with immense delight at our club, The Odd Tricks, on Saturday
"All the world's an ormibus!", I am aware that S. has the same idea
with regard to a stage, but stages do not run now, whatever they might in S's
time, and besides, an omnibus gives greater variety.
I have been an omnibus rider all my life. To be sure I went to school in a hackney-coach, falling on my knees in the straw at the bottom, I remember, as the wretched horses stumbled up Highgate Hill, and imploring a maiden aunt, [-264-] who was my conductor, to take me back, even at the sacrifice of two bright half-crowns, which I had received as a parting tip, and a new pair of Wellington boots. But when I "left," I came away in an omnibus, and at once began my omnibus experiences. I lived then with my mother, at Beaver Cottage, Hammersmith New Road, and I used to go up every morning to the Rivet and Trivet Office, Somerset House, in the nine-o'clock omnibus, every seat of which was regularly bespoke, while the conductor summoned his passengers by wild blasts upon a horn, as the vehicle approached their doors. That was two-and-twenty; years ago. Every rider in the nine-o'clock omnibus, save the junior clerk in the Rivet and Trivet department, has taken his final ride in a vehicle of much the same shape, but of a more sombre colour, and carrying only one inside and I, that identical junior, some years retired from the service on a little pension and a little something of my own, trying to kill time as best I may, find no pursuit more amusing than riding about in the different omnibuses, and speculating on the people I meet therein.
I am bound to say that in many respects the omnibuses and their men are greatly improved during my experience. The thirteenth seat, that awful position with your back to the horses and your face to the door, where, in a Mahomet's-coffin-like attitude, you rested on nothing, and had to contemplate your own legs calmly floating before you, very little below the faces of your right and left hand neighbours, has been abolished; piece of cocoa-nut matting is generally substituted for that dank straw which smelt so horribly and clung to your boots with such vicious perseverance most of the windows are, what is termed in stage-language practicable, and can be moved at pleasure ; and a system of ventilation in the roof is now the rule, instead of, as in my early days, the singular exception. Thirdly, by the salutary rule of the General Omnibus Company, aided by the sharp [-265-] notice which the magistrates take of any impropriety, the omnibus servants, the coachmen and conductors, from insolent blackguards have become, for the most part, civil and intelligent men ; while the whole " service "- horses harness, food, etc. - has been placed on a greatly improved footing. But my experience teaches me that the omnibus-riders are very much of the same type as ever. I still find the pleasant placid little elderly gentleman who sits on the right hand by the door, who always has an umbrella with a carved ivory top, and always wears a plaited shirt-frill, dull-gray trousers, rather short, and showing a bit of the leg of his Wellington boots ; who carries a brown snuff-box like a bit of mottled soap; who hands everybody into the omnibus, and who is particular in pushing down and sending quickly after their wearers the exuberant crinolines of the ladies. It is he who always starts subscriptions among the regulars for the Lancashire distress or the frozen-out operatives, or for the widow of some stable-helper who was killed by a kicking horse, or for the crippled crossing- sweeper who was knocked down by the hansom cab. It was he who, when Stunning Joe, our "express" nine AM. coachman, wvas pitched off his box going sharp round the corner of Pine-apple Place, and upset us all - we were not hurt, but Joe smashed his collar-bone and his right arm, and was not expected to live - it was our pleasant-faced little friend who used to go every day to the hospital, made interest, and got himself admitted, and took Joe a thousand little comforts, and sat by his bedside and read to him by the hour together - not forgetting, when Joe grew convalescent, to put three sovereigns into his hand, and tell him to go and set himself thoroughly right by a fortnight's stay at the sea-side. The omnibus calls for him regularly, but long before it arrives he has walked down to the end of the crescent where he lives, with two or three of his grandchildren, who all insist on being kissed before they allow [-266-] him to start, while their mother, his daughter, seldom omits to wave her farewell from the dining-room window. He takes six weeks' holiday in the autumn, when it is understood that he is away at the sea-side with his family ; but at no other time does he omit riding to and from town in the omnibus, save on Christmas-eve, when, in consideration of certain trifling purchases he has made - among them a huge Leadenhall Market turkey, a large slice out of Fortnum and Mason's shop, and half the Lowther Arcade store of toys - he charters a cab, and freights it for the return journey with the precious produce.
I still find the old gentleman who sits on the left side of the door, and whose hands are always clasped on the top of his stick; the old gentleman with a face like a withered apple, with the high, stiff starched cross-barred check neckerchief, the close-napped curly-brimmed hat, the beaver gloves, the pepper-and-salt trousers, the drab gaiters and boots. He never helps anybody in or out, and scowls if he be accidentally touched; when the women's crinolines scrape his legs as their wearers pass him, he growls " Yar! " and prods at them with his stick; he knows the sensitive part of the conductor's anatomy, and pokes him viciously therein when people want the omnibus to be stopped; he raps the fingers of the little boys who spring on the step proffering newspapers; he checks the time of the journey by a large white-faced gold watch, which he compares with every church-clock on the road ; he tells women to get their money ready; he shakes his stick in a very terrifying and Gog-and-Magogish manner at crying children. He never will have the window open on the hottest summer day; and he refuses to alight, if there be any mud, unless he is deposited close by the kerbstone, no matter if the City crush is at its height, and the omnibus has to be steered through an opposing procession of Pickfords. He is the great delight of the knifeboard "regulars," who never omit [-267-] to send a puff of tobacco-smoke (which he detests) into his face as they mount to their elevated berths ; who call him "The Dry Fish;" who declare that, instead of washing, he rasps himself, as a baker does rolls; who vow, when the omnibus goes over any rough bit of road, that they hear his heart rattling inside him like a pebble ; who send him by the conductor the most tremendous messages, which that functionary enormously enjoys, but never delivers.
The Feebles, who are the constant supporters of omnibuses, still remain in all their forcible feebleness. They are of both sexes, the female perhaps predominating. They never know whether the omnibus is outward or homeward bound, and, having got in at Charing Cross, begin, when we arrive at Turnham Green, to express their wonder "when we shall come to the Bank." They never can recollect the name of the street at which they are to be set down. "Deary me, Newland Street - no, not Newland, some name just like Newland - Archer Street, I think, or terrace ; don't you know it? Mrs. Blethers lives at Number Seven!" If by chance they do know the name of their destination, they mention it to the conductor when they get in, and then for the whole remainder of the seven-mile journey, whenever the vehicle stops, they bounce up from their seats, mutter "Is this Behinda Grove!" stagger over the feet of their fellow-passengers until they reach the door, where they are wildly repulsed, and fall back until they are jolted by the motion of the omnibus into a seat. The women carry their money either in damp smeary colourless kid gloves, round the palms of which they rake with their forefinger for a sixpence, as a snuff-connoisseur will round his box for the last few grains of Prince's Mixture; or they carry it in a mysterious appendage called a pocket : not a portion of the dress, but, so far as I can make out from cursory observation, a kind of linen wallet suspended from the waist, to reach which causes a great deal of muscular exertion, and [-268-] not a small display of under-garment. It is scarcely necessary to say that the Feebles never know the fare, that they always want change for a sovereign - fourpence to be deducted - that they constantly think the omnibus is going to be upset, or that the horses have run away ; that they always interrupt testy old gentlemen deep in their newspapers by asking them whether there is any news; and that they are in omnibuses, as they are in life, far more obstructive and disagreeable than the most wrong-headed and bumptious.
When a child in an omnibus is good, you hate it ; what can you do when it is bad! When it is good, it kneels on the seat with its face to the window, and with its muddy boots, now on the lap of its next, now against the knees of its opposite, neighbour. It drums upon the glass with its fist, it rubs the glass with its nose. When it is bad, if it be very young, from under its ribboned cap, fiercely cocked on one side, it glares at you with a baleful eye, and dribbles as in mockery, with one mottled arm up to the elbow in its mouth. If it be "getting on" and older, it commences to swing its legs like two clock pendulums, with a regular motion, increasing in vigour until one of its feet catches you on the shin, when it is "fetched-up" short by a sharp prod in the side from its attendant sprite, and is put as a punishment to "stand down." Then it deposits itself on your toes, and thence commences the ascent of your leg, taking your instep as its Grands Mulets, or resting-place.
Among the genera1 characteristics of "insides," I need scarcely point out a feeling inducing those already in possession to regard every new-comer with loathing, to decline tendering the least assistance, to close up their ranks as earnestly as the Scottish Spearmen did at Flodden Field, "each stepping where his comrade stood," and to leave the new arrival to grope his way through a thick brushwood of knees, crinolines, and umbrellas, to the end of the omnibus, [-269-] where he finally inserts as much of himself as he can between the woodwork and his next neighbour's shoulder, and leaves his ultimate position to Time the Avenger. It is also an infallible and rigorously observed rule that, if two people meeting in an omnibus know each other and speak, all the other people in the omnibus endeavour to listen to what those two are saying - also, that all the other people pretend that they are not listening or paying the least attention to the conversation. Further, it is necessary that whenever a stout person is seen blocking out the daylight in the doorway, each side having the same complement of passengers, all should begin to assume a defiant air, and get close together and play that game known among children as "no child of mine," or to treat the new-comer as a kind of shuttlecock, tossing him from one to the other until an accidental jolt decides his fate.
The "outsides" are a very different class. Women are never seen there, save when an occasional maid-servant going into the country for a holiday climbs up beside the coachman who, though he greatly enjoys her company, becomes the object of so much ribald chaff among his associates. Passing him on the road, they inquire "when it's a comin' off?" if he be unmarried ; or if he be in a state of connubial bliss, threaten to "tell the missis." But the "outsides" are, for the most part, young men of fast tendencies, who always make a point of ascending and descending while the omnibus is at its swiftest, and who would be degraded and disgusted if the driver slackened his pace to accommodate them. Some of them are very young-looking indeed, and but one remove from schoolboys; and these, I notice, feel bound to suck wooden or meerschaum pipes, and to talk of their exploits of the previous evening. With them, the conductor, always known by his christian-name, is on the pleasantest terms, occasionally being admitted to the friendly game of pool, at the tavern where the journey [-270-] terminates. They know all the other omnibus servants on the road, who touch their hats as they pass, and they maintain a constant conversation about them in a low growling tone as - "Old Harry's late again this morning!" "Little Bill's still driving that blind 'un, I see!" and so forth.
Most of these young fellows have their regular booked seats, for which they pay weekly, whether they occupy them or no; and for a stranger to get up amongst them is as bad as if he were accidentally to penetrate into the sacred precincts of the Stock Exchange.