Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Left in a Cab

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The night cabman - The story of his lucky windfall - The order of the blue ribbon - Shabby behaviour of people who leave property in cabs - The narrative of the unlucky find - The passenger to London Bridge Railway Station - The precious little box left in the cab - The treasure taken to his house by the finder - No advertisement - No reward offered - An anxious time - Resolve to break open the box - The snake, the mouse-hole, and the mother-in-law - A horrible state of suspense - A cruel blow - The advertisement at last - The double disappointment.

WHAT with the boisterous wind and the icy-cold driving rain, it was no more than common humanity dictated that, when after a six miles ride I arrived nearly at midnight at my residence, I should ask the weatherbeaten cabman as I paid him his fare at the open door if he would step inside and take a glass of something warm. He was an old fellow, and the reek of rain had saturated his grey whiskers and polished his red nose so that it looked as though it had been newly varnished.
   But his spirits were not in the least depressed on this account. Civilly touching his hat, he opened his cape, and by the light of the hall lamp disclosed a blue ribbon pinned to the breast of his coat.
    "I'm werry much obliged, sir," said he, laying a finger on the ribbon, "but I've declared off drinking. But if there was such a thing as a cup of coffee in the way, now-"
    "If you will wait for five minutes you shall have it."
    "So I will, and thanky sir," he replied; "and meanwhile if you don't mind I'll kiver up the mare." And there was a curiously comical twinkle in his eyes as he added, "we master cabmen ought to make it a duty to take care of our cattle, dont you see, sir? if it is only by way of setting a good example to the drivers."
    It so happened that there was "coffee in the way," so that he did not have to wait while it was being made; and while he sat sipping it I asked him how long he had been a cabmaster. The twinkle came back immediately, as he made answer, after a pause, as though to be exact as to the exceedingly remote period in question, [-238-] "I have been a cabmaster, sir, ever since last Thursday week. But I'll tell you another thing," and he continued, as he chafed his nose with the teaspoon, as though it was the best joke in the world, "if anybody had said to me last Wednesday week - which was only the day before - What do you think of having a four-wheeler and a couple of horses to call your own to-morrow? I should have made answer 'It's just about as likely that I shall be made Hemperor of China,' which, mind you," said he, growing suddenly serious, "wouldn't have been an unnatural answer for a man at my time of life to make, since it is not every day, by a long way, that a new cab and a pair of horses, and two new sets of harness, falls, in a manner of speaking, from the skies, now is it?"
    "I suppose you mean that they became yours in the way of an unexpected windfall, as it is called?"
    "They were left in a cab, sir; leastways, that was what you might call the key of it," he replied. "There wasn't any romance about it. A gent, he hailed me in the Strand, carrying a black bag, and says he, 'Drive to the Angel at Islington.'
    "When we got there I couldn't make anything of him. He was in a fit or something. But being not very far off, I drove him straight to St. Bartholomew's, where they took him in insensible. There was nothing in his pockets to show where he lived, so that I might have known where to take the black bag, and let his friends know what had become of him; so I took it over to Scotland Yard, givin' 'em of course, my number, and my name and address.
    "Well, sir, three days afterwards I got a letter from a house in Eaton Square to go and get a reward for the bag, and there I found the very gent I took to the hospital, and a lady as well. 'You did a humane act, cabman, in taking me to Bartholomew's, and you probably saved my life, in fact. But I may tell you that it was perhaps as well that you was not aware of the great value of what was contained in that bag. I don't say you would have been tempted to dishonesty,' he says, 'but I have caused inquiries to be made about you, and have ascertained you are only a poor cabdriver, and the opportunity for appropriating a great sum of money might have been too much for you. I have discussed with my wife the most suitable reward to make you,' says he, 'and you will find it in the mews, to which a servant [-239-] shall conduct you.' 'What you will find there is your own, on this condition,' says the lady. 'You know what this means?' and she showed me a bit of blue ribbon - this bit. 'Well, mum,' I says, 'as I understand it, wearing it is all as one with taking the pledge.' 'That is so,' says she. 'Will you promise to wear it with that meaning? You may be able to guess,' she says, 'why I make this condition with you?'
    "And were you able to guess?"
    "Well, I was never much of a one at riddles," replied the old cabman, with some degree of embarrassment; "but I suppose that when they set on somebody to make inquiries as to my private character, they had heard as how I now and again took a glass more than was good for me. But that's all over now. I've give my word as a man, and I'll keep it, sir. I promised that I would never touch beer or spirits again unless it was by the doctor's orders, and the lady herself pinned this bit of blue ribbon where you now see it. Then I was took round to the stables, and there was the new cab and the two horses just as I've told you, with the harnesses all complete - everything, even to a new whip - all ready to take away there and then. And if you don't call that a lucky windfall, I should like to meet with the one that comes up to your way of measurement."
    The rain not abating, he had another cup of coffee, and the conversation naturally turned on property left in cabs, on cabs in general, and on instances which, during his cab-driving career of seven and twenty years, had come under his own observation. I was glad to find that he was of opinion that the comparatively recent arrangement which secures to a cabman a certain per-centage on the value of all goods left in his vehicle, and voluntarily deposited by him at the police office, worked well, and was commonly the means of restoring property to the proper owner, where otherwise it would have been appropriated by the finder. He thought it not only encouraged the men to act honestly, but what, to his way of thinking, was equally important, it was a check on the amazing meanness that possessed some people. By way of illustrating the last-mentioned view, he mentioned a few cases within his own experience, one of them being the finding a diamond bracelet in his cab after he had set down a customer he had conveyed from the Adelphi Theatre to St. John's Wood. He did not discover it until he [-240-] reached the cab-yard, and made haste first thing next morning to the house, losing a day's work in consequence, and receiving for his honesty the handsome remuneration of half a crown. On another occasion he found a handsome silver-mounted umbrella with the owner's name and address engraved on the handle, and it coming on to pour with rain as he was carrying it home, he took the liberty of using the article for his own shelter on the way, and when he arrived at the residence of the person it belonged to he was soundly abused for presuming to take such an unwarrantable liberty, and his remonstrance was cut short by the door being slammed in his face.
    "But the most unlucky 'find' that ever fell to my share," continued the old cabman, "was the first one I ever came on. I hadn't been driving more than nine months, and I d been married about half that time. We were living in two rooms, and things were a long way from rosy with us. Hardly a month previous I'd been pulled up and wrongfully fined forty shillings for running into a brougham, as well I recollect, for it was in the dead winter-time, and I had to pawn my overcoat to help raise the money. Well, one day I was driving, empty, through one of the squares in Clerkenwell, and was hailed from one of the houses to take up a fare. There was a plate on the door, 'So-and-so, Diamond Cutter and Dealer in Precious Stones,' and the rider was an old gentleman, with a couple of trunks, and he wanted to be taken to London Bridge Station and go somewhere by rail. A servant brought clown the trunks, and a little rnahogany box about the size of a cash-box, which she placed atop of them in the passage. 'Will you have 'em inside or out, sir?' I asked him. 'You may put the portmanteau outside,' says he, 'but I'll take possession of this, thank you,' and at the same time he gave me a look as much as to say, 'You wouldn't wonder at my taking care of it if you knew what it contained.' More than that, just as I was driving on; a lady - his wife I suppose she was - came to the door, and calls out quite anxious, 'You've got the small box all right, my dear? For goodness sake don't trust it out of your hands.' 'It isn't likely,' said he.
    "I mention these little things so that you may understand the sort of idea they gave me of what must be the value of that small box. I was, as I have already told you, precious hard up at the time, and I couldn't help thinking to myself, if it was mine it [-241-] would just about set me up for life. Well, I drove him to London Bridge, and we were only in bare time to catch a train be wanted to travel by. It was in the evening and quite dark, and there had been a block on the bridge, and he was out of temper, and in a mighty hurry when we reached the station for fear he should be late. A porter took the luggage on the roof, and my fare jumped out in a hurry with a rug over his arm and a paper parcel in his hand, and paid me my fare, anti it wasn't till I'd lost sight of him in the station that I found he had left the little wooden case behind him.
    "Of course I didn't want any telling as to what I ought to have done, but it was such tremendous temptation I couldn't resist it. I drove straight home with it, and showed it to my missus. It was a strange sort of box, with one of them patent locks on it, and with a lot of little holes not bigger than pinholes in the top of it. It was pretty heavy, but we couldn't make anything as to what was inside of it when we shook it,. which we accounted for by its being likely that the precious stones - the diamonds, or whatever they were - were wrapped up in soft wool; we knew that there was wool in the box, because my missus poked a hairpin in at one of the little holes and fished out a bit. Well, she was for me taking it to Scotland Yard or back to the house, but I was still feeling riled about that forty shillings I'd had to pay, and, to tell the truth, I didn't feel in a very honest frame of mind, and I says, 'No, old gal, I mean sticking to it, just at present, anyhow. If it's as good as I think it is they'll be glad to offer a spanking reward to get it back without asking too many questions.' So we locked it in a drawer in our bed-room.
    "And before I go any further I must tell you something else. My wife's mother was the widow of a market gardener down Hounslow way, and being very old - very near eighty - she had just retired from the business, meaning to live on the money she got for it the rest of her days. It was a tidy little sum she had, and as she was shaky we naturally was anxious to make friends with her; especially as she had no other children to leave it to but my wife and her brother Joe, who was a scheming sort of chap, and a jolly sight better off than we were. We didn't know at which place the old lady meant to come to for a few days when she arrived in London, ours or Joe's; but the very day I got hold of that precious box she wrote and said she was coming [-242-] to us. It put us about a bit, because we had only the one bedroom - we didn't have any children then - but it was worth our while to make shift for a few nights, anyhow, so we got the room ready for her.
    "Well, one, two, three days passed, and we didn't hear anything about the precious box, and when I came home the third night - the old lady from Hounslow was expected every minute - I made up my mind to break it open. So we locked the bed-room door, and I got a hammer and a chisel, and presently the lid sprung open, and in an instant - like a streak of lightning - there slicked out of the box from amongst the wool, and off the table and on to the ground, the most horrible-looking little snake I've ever seen or read about. It wasn't very large - not longer than a full-length tobacco-pipe, and about as thick as my thumb, and with its eyes like two sparks, and its fangs darting out of its mouth. It wriggled along, while, struck all of a heap, we stood looking at it, and then down it went clean out of sight through a mouse-hole just by the fireplace.
    "It was an awful disappointment, and placed us in a nice sort of predicament; and to crown it, just at that identical moment a cab drove up to the door, and the missus's mother arrived with her boxes. We were taken so aback for the moment that we didn't know what was the best to do. We had written to the old lady that we had got a bed-room all ready for her, and we couldn't do anything else than show her to it; but I made a hasty arrangement with my wife that as soon as she had got her things off, and was in the other room having a bit of supper, I would take up a floor-board or two, and have the varmint out somehow or other.
    "But here we were balked again. She didn't want any supper, she said; she was very tired, and would go to bed at once, and give us no more trouble than to light a fire in the room. So she went to bed, and the missus and me were in a pretty funk about that cussed snake. We hadn't the least idea in the world what were the ways and habits of such creatures, so I went and borrowed of a friend of mine a book on nat'ral history to try and find out something about 'em. There was a lot in the volume about snakes that we didn't understand, and a lot more we didn't want to know about. But we dropped on one bit of information that was a staggerer. Snakes of all kinds, it [-243-] said, were fond of heat, and in the winter-time if they were in the neighbourhood of a fire they were always attracted towards it, or they would creep anywhere where they could find warmth.
    "Everything seemed against us. As I've already told you, the mouse-hole it escaped down was close by the hearth, and the missus was in a rare fright on her mother's account. The dread that haunted her was that as soon as the old lady put out her candle and it was dark, the snake would make its way out to warm itself at the fire, and that, as soon as that died out, feeling cold again, it would go crawling about the room in search of a place where it could coil up snug for the night, and very likely glide in under the bed-clothes. If we had had another bed-room we would have explained matters to her, and had her out; but she was a queer-tempered old soul, and very likely, if we had said anything to her about poisonous snakes under the floor-boards, she would have declared that it was a cock-and-bull story to get rid of her, and gone off in a huff, which was the last thing we wanted so I persuaded the missus to chance it. The only bit of comfort we got out of reading the book was that it told us some small snakes were poisonous, while others were quite harmless. Which sort our joker was of course we didn't know, and we could only hope for the best. We sat up all night in the next room, listening to the least suspicious sound, and I got an awful stiff neck kneeling down at the old lady's room door, with my ear at the keyhole. But as far as we were aware the snake didn't come up.
    "But next morning we had a scare. I hunted over the newspaper as usual, to see if there was any advertisement concerning the box, and sure enough there was one this time. I recollect the words of it as if I had only just now read em:
    "'To Cabdrivers. - A small mahogany box was left in a cab that conveyed a gentleman from ---- Square, Clerkenwell, to London Bridge Railway Station. If returned within two days of the present date, a reward of ten shillings will be paid for its recovery. The box, which is locked, contains a small snake of a deadly poisonous species. Therefore the person who may have the box in his possession is earnestly warned against attempting to open it. '
    Well, of course, after that we couldn't do any other than tell the old lady all about it, and get her out of the room as soon [-244-] as possible. She cut up rough about it, just as I expected she would. It was no thanks to us, she declared, that she hadn't been bitten to death by the horrible reptile. She wouldn't stay another hour in our house, but had a cab fetched there and then, and took her luggage and went off to my wife's brother Joe's place, and there she died before she had been there a month, leaving him all she had to leave.
    "And what, after all, became of the poisonous snake?" I asked him.
    "What became of it? Why, that was the most riling part of the whole business, sir. I didn't like to miss the reward after all the trouble I'd had with the confounded thing, so I had up the floor-boards, and finding it was still there, I paid a rat-catching chap I was acquainted with half a crown to capture it and put it back into the box again, and I took it back to the address at Clerkenwell, making up a story as I went along that I had kept the box all safe and sound until I saw the advertisement, and that, happening at the moment to have it in my hand, I dropped it in a fright, and that was how the accident happened. That was the crammer I told him, and furthermore, in hope that he might spring a few shillings more than he had offered, I piled it up a bit, and told him that, being in the room when the reptile escaped, my mother-in-law was frightened almost into a fit. On which he laughed, and said it wouldn't have done her any more harm than a kitten if she had taken it up and nursed it, since it was quite harmless, and that he had described it as being poisonous merely to prevent any one opening the box out of curiosity.
    "So that, one way and another, I think you'll agree with me, sir," concluded the old cabman, finishing his coffee and buttoning his cape, "that first 'find' of mine was just about as unlucky as my last one was lucky."