Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 10 - Against Agriculturists in Omnibuses

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WHEN the Rev. Sydney Smith was asked by some foolish lady in want of "something to say," Why the posts had been narrowed which led into the Green Park, he is said to have replied, "Madam, you have no idea what fat people used to get into that park."
    Now, could not this narrowing process be applied to the doors of omnibuses, so that persons above a certain bulk should be excluded therefrom?  I am not a captious person, easily aggrieved; I would allow very considerable latitude as well as gravity; but I do think that there should be a limit. Say, eighteen or nineteen stone. Beyond this weight fellow-passengers become encroaching and unbear-[-59-]able. They surge over their neighbours; they even overlap their vis--vis; they possess all the disadvantages of crinoline, with the addition that the crinoline is solid. It is true that this only happens once a year, during the December cattle-show, when all the great country-folk come up to town - for London does not grow its own people of this preposterous size - but why should it happen at all! Why should not the ordinary omnibus licences be suspended for that week, and arrangements made to meet the tremendous emergency? Let the number of Insides be limited to six instead of twelve, and the Outsides be similarly abated; and let every agriculturist be charged double the usual fare. It is idle to state that such arrangements would have the effect of causing these enormous personages to walk. At the worst, it can only cause them to wish to do so. They must ride. Nor can it with any reason be urged that such increase of the tariff will drive them into cabs. It is quite an exceptional case where two of them can be compressed into even a four-[-60-]wheel cab. As for the Hansoms, a single specimen - if such an adjective can be applied to gentlemen of such proportions - not only fills a Hansom, but overflows it, and especially bulges out at the doors, which have in all cases to be thrown back. To restore the equilibrium, the driver has to lie along the top of his vehicle.
    The condition of even the best cab-horses, I am assured, is sensibly affected by the Agricultural Week; and they contrast a habit of looking back at a hirer (in order to calculate the probable amount of his weight), which they do not lose until the occasion has long passed by, which has thus aroused their apprehensions. The unfortunate animals cannot, of course, be made to understand the temporary nature of this infliction; they imagine that their tyrant, Man, has suddenly trebled himself, and that burdens will for the future be laid on them heavier than they can bear.
    They cannot read the announcements, in appropriately tremendous type, which garnish every wall, stating that the invasion is For One Week [-61-] Only. They know not that all the festive preparations for receiving "the young man from the country," and his male relatives at the Music Halls, the Cyder Cellars, the Pavilions, the Alhambras, and the Casinos are confined, most fortunately, to half-a-dozen nights. Something, then, ought to be done, if only on the score of humanity towards the brute creation. But, I submit, that there are reasons for action of a far more lofty and important nature, insomuch as they affect ourselves.
    Let it be distinctly understood, however, that we of the city are actuated by no unfriendly feelings towards our magnificent visitors. Our big brother is always welcome, except in an omnibus. We gladly acknowledge his hospitality, his good-nature, and his many other becoming virtues. We know that he would not grow himself so uncommonly fine if he could help it. There may be other theories upon this subject, but it is my own opinion that he catches it from the beasts; that having the physical increase of his own cattle for ever on his mind, and contemplating their gradual [-62-] expansion, his own proportions become amplified from day to day, until, so far as size is concerned, he is as ripe for public exhibition as themselves. Husband and wife are said to grow alike through constant association, and something of this kind seems to occur in the case of the farmer and his live stock. There is also a very philosophical view of volition, taken by some physiologists, which would appear to point to the same result; but in a paper addressed to my bucolic brethren, any reference to such far-fetched theories would be out of place, for they are sensible people. Mr. Ruskin asserts that properly to paint a tree, it is necessary that the painter should so deeply sympathise with his subject as in some sort himself to become a tree; and thus it is with the breeding of fat cattle: to produce a winner, you must qualify for the prize yourself.
    It may be a fanciful notion, but as I walked in that vast hall of Islington, the other day, with an eye to men as well as muttons, I imagined I could distinguish the gentlemen who gave themselves [-63-] up to Southdowns, from those who exclusively devoted themselves to oxen. The one class was Ovine - wooden, woolly, stolid, and yet apprehensive of some wrong being done upon them, such as the being violently punched in the small of their backs; the other was Bovine - patient, comfortable, "lapped in dreamy ease," and chewing the cud of contemplation with their eyes half-closed. There was one quadruped of the latter kind, with a bucketful of turnips before him, lying down and eating - after the fine old Roman fashion, but who outdid the luxury of the ancients by being, in addition, fast asleep. Immediately in front of him stood his owner, or breeder, or foster-father, equally large, equally sleek, and equally oblivious to the affairs of this attenuating world. He had some sort of cake - perhaps oilcake - in his nerveless hand; an irregular motion of the jaws proclaimed that there was more cake there; the palate was being gratified, while the intellect roamed at wi1l over the land of dreams, or "winged the lucent hyaline of the empyrean." If I ever saw perfect [-64-] enjoyment reflected - it shone in each of those not inexpressive countenances. Fed on food seasoned with Thorley's Condiment, was inscribed upon a placard midway between the man and the ox. I know not to which that statement applied, but I repeated to myself the medical dictum, "Avoid sauces," with a convulsive shudder. My mind wandered for a little to the doctrine of metempsychosis, but presently settled itself to the ridiculous consideration of whether, in the event of the Royal Agricultural Society making me a present of that ox, I should accept it, fettered with the condition of personally driving it home? Could I do it, or could I not do it? A friend of mine had bought a Shetland pony at the Battersea Cattle-show; after he had paid for it, the salesman coolly informed him that he must catch it himself out of the drove. The majority of purchasers would have shrunk from completing the transaction, but my friend was muscular, and of a determined mind. He strode in among the Liliputian throng, and after two or three hours of distracting [-65-] pursuit, he secured his shaggy steed, and carried it out under his arm like a toy-horse. The jeering crowd advised him to enter the little animal for the Derby, but he had gone through too much already to be moved by mere satire; and having once got his property off the premises, he suffered it to find its legs, and clutching a handful of its tossing mane, led it home as though it were a dog.
    But what an easy task was the foregoing compared with the difficulties that would occur in the suppositious case of this ox being presented to myself! How, in the first place, should I ever persuade him to rise? No weapon that I possessed could inform him of my wishes in that respect; the blade of my little penknife would lose itself in fat without ever reaching a sentient locality; the ferrule of my umbrella would never penetrate his skin; as for my scarf-pin, I might just as well have stuck it in its ordinary pincushion. If even I got him up, and out of the hall, what hideous obstacles would intervene between us and Bayswater! How the populace would enjoy the [-66-] spectacle of a prize-ox being persuaded by a gentleman of fashion to accompany him to his suburban home! How they would relish a drover with an eyeglass! What a crowded thoroughfare would the New Road become under such circumstances! Suppose the stupendous animal should break through into the Underground Railway! Suppose a dog should attack him, and hang on to his nose, what should I do then? What pitiful sounds would he utter under such a misfortune as that! Or suppose he caught sight of a market-cart filled with mangel-wurzel going to Covent Garden, and persisted in taking that direction! Or suppose he waddled off into a rather narrow street which tapered at the extremity, and blocked it completely up, without being able to turn round, what a situation would that be for his proprietor! Or suppose he expired suddenly in Oxford and Cambridge Terrace, might I sell him as he lay, by the pound, to unfashionable Padding- ton butchers, or would he be considered to revert to the Royal Agricultural Society, because I had [-67-] not fulfilled their conditions by getting him quite home?
    These inquiries respecting the removal of the wonderful Ox were mere suppositions (although, of course, he was got home by somebody, and I should dearly like to know how); but as respected his ally and sympathiser, the Man, they were terribly real. How was he to be got home? I have fixed upon him merely as a type of the bucolic class (albeit he was what the printers call "leaded," in larger print than the rest of them), and I demand the same question respecting them, which brings me back to the omnibus subject with which I started - How are they to be got home? To suggest pedestrianism is merely to be insulting, since that is the very exercise which would tend to diminish their noble characteristics. Four-wheeled cabs for two are expensive, as are Hansoms for one. It is obvious that they must make use of Omnibuses, which, indeed, would appear to be the proper vehicles for persons of their (firstrate) condition. As a Sociable, which holds four, [-68-] is to ordinary individuals, so is our omnibus to our agricultural friends - but what if you attempt to make that omnibus hold twelve! To the agricultnrists themselves, this little matters, for when six or eight are in it, even the cad is obliged to proclaim that he is "Full Inside." He may inveigle would-be passengers as far as the step, but he knows they will never cross the threshold. They perceive the state of the case at once, and promptly descend, to seek some rival vehicle patronised by the aborigines only. Nothing happens in this case worse than the inconvenience of delay.
    But supposing that persons of moderate size are already in the omnibus, the entrance of these gigantic folk becomes serious indeed. The original inhabitants must make up their minds at once either to endure all things or to flee; for after more than one of them has entered in, escape is impossible-you cannot get by-you are enclosed in a living tomb, which is also locomotive. General observations, however, fail to convey the terrors of this awful position. Let me narrate an experi-[-69-]ence, which occurred to my own half-sister, Miss Bridget Lamb, of Baker Street, on Wednesday, December 10, 1862, as related by her own lips. I will myself guarantee the truthfulness of her narration, for I know her well to be as incapable of falsehood as of invention. She is a person of the strictest principles, and has no imagination whatever.
    "I arrived at London Bridge from Greenwich at about 4.30 on Wednesday afternoon. As I had no luggage, and there was still some daylight, I thought I would save a cab-fare by taking an omnibus. By help of a policeman, I escaped out of the clutches of seven cads (all of whom assured me they were going in my direction), and got into a Paddington Royal Oak, which I knew must pass the end of Baker Street. It was better, at all events, than trusting myself to an Elephant and Castle, though it solemnly averred that it would drop me at my door. Still, I did not like to hear the conductor observe to the driver, across the roof of the vehicle, that 'the Old Gal would have a [-70-] good round of it.' I could not help thinking - for I knew that the insolence of this class of person is unbounded - that the remark might have some distant reference to myself. However, there was one passenger beside me, who informed me that he was 'going all the way to the Oak,' and this convinced me that I could not at least be in the wrong bus; he was an inoffensive, pleasant little man, and by the long white roll of paper which he carried in his hand, as well as by his affable manners, I concluded him to be a civil engineer. I was quite pleased to have the companionship of so respectable a person, and that I should save eighteenpence at least, without suffering any of those inconveniences which my half-brother is always prophesying for ladies who ride in omnibuses. There was a stoppage in King William Street, to be sure, for about three-quarters of an hour, but we had a fine view of the Monument all the time. Just before we got to the Bank, the omnibus stopped for longer than the usual time - which, I think, is half a second - allowed for the [-71-] admittance of a passenger; a very stout gentleman placed his foot upon the step, and as he did so, I felt the whole omnibus 'tit up,' so that I thought the horses must be off their legs. 'Woa, woa, my lud,' said he to the grinning conductor; 'there's another little one a-coming.' And sure enough, another very stout gentleman, and the counterpart of the first one, followed him in. It was quite dreadful to see how light they made of their own condition. 'Licensed to carry twelve on us, eh!' said one, referring to some legal notice stuck up in the vehicle; well, I shouldn't like to be the eleventh, nor yet the ninth, for the matter of that.'
    "The little engineer was much depressed by the incursion of these formidable persons, and he whispered across to me that he did not understand it, but that he did not seem to be going to the Poultry at all.
    "Poultry! Why, no, sir, there's nothing but beastesses and such-like, as we're going to see," observed No. 1 stout gentleman.
    [-72-] "'Beastesses and peags,'' remarked No. 2, with gravity, as though making an important correction.
    "'But I don't want to go to the cattle-show,' exclaimed my vis--vis impatiently. 'Hi, conductor, hi; I want to go to the Royal Oak.'
    "'All right, sir, and so yer shall; only we goes to the Hangel  first, for the convenience of these here gentlemen. It won't make scarcely any difference in point o' time. Cattle-show! cattle-show!! Whose for Islington and the fat-cattle-show!!! '
"The little engineer would have got out then and there, only No. 1 and No. 2 stout gentlemen were sitting exactly opposite one another, so that their respective waistcoats touched. Egress was thus rendered impossible, unless one of them could be induced to move, which was a circumstance that did not seem probable. Then we plunged through the gathering gloom into Finsbury, past the Artillery Ground (as the conductor informed one of the two strangers), a place I never thought [-73-] to have beheld in my mortal life, and so along a dreadfully unfinished thoroughfare, called the City Road, to the Angel. Here, thought the little engineer and I, we shall at least be free; but although the two got out, no less than six twin brothers of theirs squeezed themselves in, in their place; the windows were thus entirely obscured; a seventh giant, who was permitted to stand on the step until somebody should get out, filled up the doorway, so that we were in almost total darkness.
    "My original companion, in whom I had begun to feel much interest, engendered by our common misfortune, would not, however, have been visible, even had there been light. His white roll of paper seemed to gleam forth from the pocket of the monster who had absorbed him. As for myself, I could breathe (with difficulty), and that was all. My steel crinoline became first spherical, and then of a diamond shape, having "given" in four places. It was shocking to imagine what an appearance I should present when I got out, [-74-] but still more shocking to consider that there was no probability of my getting out at all. It was already past our usual dinner-hour in Baker Street, and my brother was the fussiest person for punctuality, as well as the most despondent in his views respecting what has made anybody late. He would be almost sure to conclude that I had been garrotted; certainly he would never imagine that I was in the far end of an Islington omnibus, with half-a-dozen mountains of men between myself and liberty.
    "When we arrived at the top of Baker Street, I felt it was useless to stop the vehicle. I could not ask six gentlemen to get out in the mud, in order to permit of my exit. I was carried on with them to Paddington station, to which, as I was well aware, they were all bound. I got out there - leaving the little civil engineer like a thread-paper in collapse, but retaining his precious roll intact - and took a cab to Baker Street. Thus, beside the injuries to a certain article of apparel, to which I have already alluded, my journey home was not a [-75-] cheap one after all. My half-brother, too, had already incurred considerable expenses in advertising me in the evening papers, and in driving about to the various police-offices. The dinner, too, having been much spoiled, his temper had suffered proportionately; his language was such as it is impossible for me to repeat; and so far from sympathising with my misfortunes, he observed, with brutal vulgarity, that it served me precious right for taking a 'bus. ' "
    The above is the sad story of my sister Bridget. it is all true, with the exception of the last few statements. My temper was quite unruffled, and my language temperate in the extreme. I did say, however, that for a person like herself, who had actually lived in Baker Street, where the cattleshow used to be held until now, and who must, therefore, be well acquainted with the contour of our bucolic visitors - for her, I said, to get into an omnibus during the Agricultural Week, for the sake of saving eighteen-pence, was the act of an economical monomaniac - of a female Elwes. [-76-] Still, are these vehicles never to be placed under restrictions that may meet the periodical emergency? Can nothing be done ?