Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - The Night Cabman

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THE NIGHT CABMAN.

A cabman in tears, and the melancholy reason thereof - A "shufflin' wagabone!" - The old cabman's experiences - On the rank on frosty nights - The one-sidedness of the law - Are night cabs utilized by the burglar brotherhood? - A few select instances - A strange fare picked up at Knightsbridge - The young man who lodged at the pawnbroker's - "Look out for a chalk mark on the wall" - The box, the bundle, and the toast-rack - The drive to Westminster - The cabman "bilked" - His stern revenge.

THE spectacle of a cabman in tears is so uncommon that, under ordinary conditions, it would attract one's attention but, in the case that came under my observation, the circumstances were so peculiar, that to have passed him without a word of inquiry as to the cause of his tribulation, would have been little short of inhuman.
    It was late at night - or, rather, early in the morning, nearly one o'clock, indeed - when I discovered the lamenting Jehu by the wayside between Brixton and Kennington. His vehicle was at a standstill, and, the cab door being open, he was sitting on the sill, with his feet on the pavement and his face buried in his pocket-handkerchief. I at first thought that he was asleep, but as I passed he raised his head, and I saw, by the light of a street lamp near at hand, that his eyes were watery and his features dolefully puckered. He was a little old man, with a purple and weatherbeaten face, and, his hat being pushed to the back of his head, revealed his wispy grey locks. He seemed to be ashamed to be discovered so, and, starting up suddenly and resentfully, remarking that " He wasn't a puppy-show," was pulling up on to the driving-seat, when I inquired if he could take me as far as the Angel at Islington, and what the fare would be. He brightened up instantly at the suggestion, and, naming a sum that was by no means exorbitant, the bargain was struck without further parley.
    "And, as I don't care to be shut up in a night cab," I remarked, "I will ride outside with you, if you have no objection." He replied that he would be glad of my company. "It will prevent your falling asleep, at all events," said I; "you were having a doze, I thought, when I came up with you."
 
[-12-] He had dried his eyes, but there was still a huskiness in his throat as he made bitter answer, "Doze, indeed! If you d ha' said I'd had my 'dose,' it would have been nearer the mark. A shufflin' wagabone!"
    And, as though it was the cause of his wrath, he made a vicious cut with his whip at the bony old horse in the shafts.
    "Who are you speaking of?" I asked.
    "I'm speaking of the previous fare I set down - leastways, who set himself down before I took you up, sir. I brought him all the way from Tottenham Court Road. I hadn't been on the rank ten minutes, when up he comes. 'I want to go to Kennington,' he says; 'and I shall give you five shillings for the job.' 'Here's a proper lot of luck,' I says to myself, 'and thank goodness for it. for goodness knows I want it bad enough,' which, atween you and me, sir, I did. Six-and-six is the money I've got to take in every night, and all I earned last night was four shillings, and, it's as true as we re sitting on the box, I had to take the old lady's boots to pawn to make up the money, or the guv'ner wouldn't have let me bring my cab out. So you see I had reasons for feeling pleased at the prospect of a dollar to begin with to-night. All the way going along I was reckoning it up. 'Your five bob and another eighteenpence, and I'm squared for a start on my own hook, and if the good fortune holds good, maybe I shall take enough to get the wife's boots back and half a dollar besides.' 'You keep right on,' he says, when he got as far as the Elephant and Castle. 'I'll stop you when you get as far as I'm going.' So I kep' on and on, till I began to think it was not quite such a rosy job as I expected it would be. When I got to the beginning of Brixton, where you found me, thinks I, he's asleep, so I pulled up to wake him. But. bust him, he was wider awake than I was," said the poor old fellow, with another cut at the bony grey, who didn't seem to mind it in the least. "He was gone, sir! How and where he slipped me I'm blest if I know, but there was the cab empty and the door shut. I felt so knocked over with disappointment and vexation, that I could a'most have cried."
    I asked him what were his average weekly earnings, and was surprised when he informed me that working Sunday, as well as other nights, he thought himself well off if he was able to take home eighteen shillings, and for this he would be out [-13-] from about eight in the evening until six or seven next morning. "It ain't so bad this time o' year, when the nights are warmish, but in the winter-time it's a stinger sometimes, I can tell you," said the old fellow.
   "You see, sir, it isn't as though the earnings were such as allow of a man taking care of himself. What he wants is a jolly good overcoat, and if he's as old as I am - seventy-three next birthday - thick under-flannels as well. But it won't run to it. He's lucky to be able to get a little bit of meat with his tea before he goes out, and to have twopence in his pocket for a drop of ruin last thing before the public houses close, if he don't have the good fortune to pick up a fare before. That's the time when a night cabman feels it worst in the depth of winter, when it comes to be one or two in the morning, and, tight or sober, all the late birds have got borne somehow, and you are pretty sure it will be a bad time with you till five or six, when there's a chance of a railway job. When it's been freezing hard I've shut myself in the cab, and fell asleep, and when I woke my breath has froze on the winders so that you could no more see through 'em than through a board, and my legs have been that benumbed I couldn't stand, and the fare I'd been hoping for, and who came at last, has said, 'You re drunk. I couldn't trust a fellow like you to drive me.'"
    "But now and then," said I, "it is the fare who is drunk, and you make a good thing of him."
    "Yes; and now and then," he replied, "and a precious sight too often to be pleasant, you pick up a drunken customer who seems the right sort when he engages you, but who goes to sleep on the road home, and when you get there and wake him, and ask for your money - three or four shillings, p'r'aps, for driving him half a dozen miles - he'll swear he hasn't been in your cab ten minutes, and offers you a shilling."
    "But you can drive him to the police station."
    "Not if he doesn't want to go."
    "Then you can summon him for the amount."
    "Thanky! Two shillings the summons, and half a day at the court, and your fare's respectable word against that of a shabby old night cabman's. It's a safer game to take the shilling."
    The conversation turning on the queer customers a night [-14-] cabman was always liable to meet with, I asked if it was his opinion that there were black sheep among the badged brotherhood, who, for a substantial consideration, would aid and abet midnight robbery to the extent of conveying burglars to the scene of depredation, and bringing them away therefrom with the plunder. He replied that he was aware that this was the belief not uncommonly entertained by the police, but that he thought the suspicion was, to a great extent, an unjust one.
    "I don't say there are not bad characters among night cabmen as well as among all classes," said he, "but there are too many obstacles in the way of the business you mention. Unless a man was notoriously dishonest, it wouldn't be safe for any of the gang to make the proposal to him, and even if the matter was 'squared' so far, there's the number on the back of a cab that a policeman would very likely take notice of if he saw the vehicle standing at a late hour at a dark corner; and, more'n all, a night cab-horse isn't the sort of animal for them when the job has been done, and they are in a hurry to get away from it, and out of the reach of danger. A light cart and a good stepper is more in their way - more easily hired, harder to trace, and, if there should be an alarm at the time, much more convenient to spring up into and rattle off with. And I'll tell you another thing, sir," continued the old fellow, "it wouldn't follow as a matter of course, even though a man was stopped with a couple of burglars in his cab, and the 'swag' as well, that he knew anything about a robbery having been committed. He might have been tricked into the affair, and have no more guilty knowledge than the man who was twenty miles away.
    "I know that to be a fact, for the best of all reasons - it once happened to me. It is a good many years ago, and I hadn't been long in the business, or perhaps I might have been wider awake. It. came about in this way:- About nine o'clock at night I got off the rank in Parliament Street, and took a fare to Kensington, and wishing to work back to Westminster I turned back and stopped at the Clock House in Knightsbridge, and went in for a half-pint and to get a light for my pipe. There were two gentlemenly-dressed chaps in the compartment, and seeing what I was, one of them asked if I was engaged, and I replied that I should be glad to take a job Westminster way. 'Why, we shall require to be drove to Westminster by-and-bye,' [-15-] said the other; 'but we first want to go to Fulham, and if you'll do the double job we'll make it worth your while. Don't take us if you'd rather not,' says he; 'have a drop of rum, old man, and think about it.' So they stood me a stiff drain-fourpen'orth - and while I was drinking it I said I would take 'em to Fulham, and if there was no waiting there, on again to Westminster for a crown. We'd as soon give you six shillings as five, or seven either for that matter,' said the good-natured gentleman who had stood the rum, 'but we couldn't exactly say there'll be no waiting at Fulham. Look here,' he says, with a bit of a laugh and after whispering with his friend, 'you're an old stager, and know what young men are; our business at Fulham is rather a ticklish one. I think it is a lark, but my friend here is funking over it. Fact is, he's been lodging at a place in the Fulham Road, and has managed to get into debt for board and lodging about seventeen pounds. He is a professional man, and has been out of business a long time; but now a situation is offered him in a hurry down in the country, and he can't make a start without his traps and his luggage, and they won't let him have 'em if they know it without he first squares up. Now the lark will be,' and he laughed and took me in a confidential kind of way by a button of my coat, 'the lark will be,' says he, 'for him to let us both in with his latch-key, and pack up his things, have a cab - your cab, for instance - somewhere close by, hurry 'em in, and drive off - and the trick s done!' He saw I looked dubersome, I suppose, for he went on, 'It isn't as though my friend meant wronging the people; oh, dear, no! As soon as he draws his first month's salary he'll pay 'em every penny he owes, honourable as the Bank of England.'
    "Well, sir, they seemed to speak so free and easy and straightfor'ard, and made so light of giving me six or seven shillings for the job, that I agreed. I had another drop of rum and we started. It was getting on towards twelve o'clock then, and the church clock had struck it before they pulled the check-string. It was at a corner of a street in the main road they stopped, and just by there was a row of shops. One of 'em slips half a crown into my hand.
    "'That'll make you safe so far,' says he; 'now you drive off and come back in about fifteen minutes, and then if you see a chalk mark on this wall here, stop; if you don't see no mark [-16-] -and I'll make it plain enough - drive away again, and give us another ten minutes.'
    "Well, they seemed in such a larky humour that, upon my word, I didn't dream there was anything wronger than what they'd told me. I drove away and come back to time, and there being no mark as yet on the wall, I went off and came back again. Still no mark. So I thought to myself, 'Serve you right. It's you they ye been having a lark with, and I hope you like it.' But I thought I would give them another chance, and did a bit of a round, and came back once more. The mark was there this time, and so were they, and in a pretty temper, I can tell you, at having been kept waiting.
    "They had brought the 'luggage' with 'em. It was a great bundle tied up with string in a woollen tablecloth, and a big carpet-bag. I didn't like the big bundle, and I said something about it being a rum way for a gentleman to pack his luggage; but they said it would make too much noise to haul a great portmanteau down the stairs, and they had just bundled the things up in a hurry. I took hold of the bundle and was about to hoist it up on to the roof, when they both rattled out an oath at me, and seized it out of my hands, and let fall something with a jingling sound that looked like a toast-rack."
    "And your eyes, of course, were then opened as to the sort of customers they were?" I remarked.
    "Well, I certainly was struck all of a heap," said the old night cabman, "but, you see, I didn't know what to do. It might ha' been all right, in spite of the toast-rack; and then again, suppose I called a policeman and it proved to be a robbery, and they were took, and out of spite they turned on me and swore I was in the swim, and had 'rounded' on them because we had had a disagreement. I might have found it hard to clear myself. I don't say it was the right thing, but I was in a mess, and it seemed to me the shortest way out of it was to keep my suspicions to myself, and go through with my job, take my fare, and say nothing about it. They had got something to drink with em in the cab, I think, for they seemed in very good spirits, and on the road they pulled down the front window and asked me for a pipe-light. I didn't have one, but I said,' If you ye got a piece of paper, I'll give you a light from my lamp,' and they handed me out a piece of card, and to make it more [-17-] convenient for lighting I tore a strip off it. I drove 'em to Strutton Ground, Westminster, where at that time there was a public house where you could get a drink, no matter how late it was. They pulled me up there and gave me a shilling to treat myself with, and, like a fool, I left 'em to do it. I wasn't gone three minutes, but it was long enough for them. When I came out they had cleared out, luggage and all."
    "So that three and sixpence was all that you got as your fare, after all ?" I remarked.
    "It was all that I got at the time," returned the old night cabman with a chuckle, "but, after all, it was a matter of twenty pounds in my pocket. Believe me or believe me not, sir, if they had behaved honourable to me, and had not been guilty of the shabbiness of bilking - specially after the haul they had made - I'd have kept my mouth shut, spite of the reward that was offered."
    "They were burglars, then?"
    "Out-and-outers, sir. It was a pawnbroker's shop they broke into, and twenty pounds was the reward offered for information. I saw the bill stuck up two days afterwards, and I felt that riled against 'em that I said to myself, I wish I had a clue to where you're to be found, and I'd touch that twenty, and think neither sin nor shame of it.' I was in the cab yard when I thought this, beating my mats agin the wall where I always beat 'em, and what do you think I spied laying on the rubbish-heap? Why, that bit of card I'd stripped from the piece they give me to get a light at the lamp with. I'd dropped it down as I sat on the box, and it had stuck to my rug.
    "It wasn't much of a clue after all, p'r'aps you'll say, and you'd been more inclined to that opinion if you had seen it. It was a bit of common printed card like they have for friendly leads and public house raffles, and all the printing there was left on it was 'and Road' on the top, and 'il 10th' at bottom, 'Arty will take the chair? I used to be reckoned as being as good as here and there one at guessing riddles, and I gave my mind to finding out this one. It was easy enough to guess that 'il 10th' stood for April of that date, and it was April then, and only the 7th, so that the affair, wherever it was, hadn't come off yet. It was only a chance, of course, but since they had obtained a card for it, they might mean to be there. 'Where?' [-18-] says I.'and Road.' Put an 'l' to the 'and' and you had 'land.' What 'land,' Portland? Too respectable. Queensland? That was at Bayswater, and too far away, Kingsland?
    "That seemed more likely, there being a shady pub. or two in that neighbourhood to my knowledge. I couldn't afford it, for it being little better than winter-time as yet I wasn't earning much, night cabbing; but I got nettled against the shabby rascals, and resolved to lose a night or two trying my luck. Kingsland is a long road from Shoreditch Church right up to Dalston, with any number of side streets, to Hackney Road on one side and Hoxton on the other, and the first night I was all the pence out of pocket it cost me for half-pints and pen'orths to look in the beer-shops to try what I could pick up tallying with the morsel of printing on the bit of card. But next evening I did better: I hit on it the very first pub. I tried. I didn't even have to go in, for there was a whole card of the kind I'd got only a bit of stuck in the window. It was for the benefit of a man, whose name I needn't mention, who was 'in trouble' and in need of a bit of money, the card said, to procure him a 'mouthpiece,' - which, perhaps you might not be aware, is another word for a defending counsel among those sort of characters.
    "The benefit was to take place next evening, which was Monday, the 10th. But I hadn't got enough to work on to say anything about it to the police, as yet. It all turned on the speckerlations of my two customers, or one of them, perhaps, being there next night. It wasn't likely they would know me again, as they had only seen me in a cabman's coat, and muffled up to keep my ears warm. So I got myself up in different sort of togs entirely, and went next night and paid my sixpence for a ticket at the bar, and toddled upstairs, and, bless my precious eyesight, if here wasn't one of my gentlemen in the chairman's place, and the other one sitting chose alongside of him. No doubt it was his having to do with the affair that accounted for his having cards concerning it in his pocket, and one to spare when I asked him for a bit of paper to get 'im a light for their cigars. I saw they were both fixed for the evening, so I didn't hurry. I stayed and heard a song or two, and then I walked downstairs and made my way to Kingsland Police Station, and said my say to the inspector on duty, and in less than half an hour afterwards they were in the dock before the inspector's [-19-] window. They were Westminster lads, and not known at Kingsland, and they were mighty indignant at being charged; but the moment I was called forward, and they recognized me, they burst out laughing, and said they were had to rights this time, and no mistake. And so it turned out, for when their lodgings at Westminster were searched, not only was the greater part of the Fulharn pawnbroker's goods found, but a lot more, the produce of other burglaries. So the end of it was, I got the twenty pounds, and they got ten years."
    By this time I had reached my journey's end, and delighting him with a shilling more than I had bargained for, I bade him good night.

source: James Greenwood, Odd People in Odd Places, 1883