Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 16 - On the Knife-Board

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WHEN my Brougham is gone to the coach-makers for repairs, and the small Tiger who stands rampant at the back of my cabriolet has got a fortnight's leave to see his friends in the country, then I sometimes ride upon an omnibus; upon, mind, but never in one. I cannot submit to sit sideways among hard-breathing but silent persons, the majority of whom entertain suspicions that one of their two neighbours is picking their pocket, and that the other is working in concert with him. It is too distressing to me to witness the futile efforts of that good-natured person from the agricultural districts to ingratiate himself with the rest of the company by jocose remarks, which only [-177-] change their dark suspicions with regard to him, at least, into perfect certainty. It is too frightful to run the risk a second time - for it has happened to me once already - of sitting next a mother with two babes, one of whom, being discomposed by the movement; of the vehicle, requires the exclusive attention of its parent, who thereupon intrusts me with the other to "hold," as though it were a challenge-cup, and I were honoured indeed in being made the repository of such a trust.
    These things, I say, are not to be endured in the finest weather; while, if it rains - when people, curiously enough, seem most to affect the interior of these conveyances - the mystical power of emitting horrible odours which an omnibus possesses, is such that nothing would induce me to brave it. I do not pretend to question the desirability of this gift; we know that the skunk and other animals are dowered in the like manner, and doubtless for some good and wise purpose; nor do I concern myself with what composition of forces may make up the aroma in question - how [-178-] much may be contributed by damp straw, how much by wet broadcloth, how much by saturated members of the human family, and how much by their umbrellas, dripping black and green and brown into a common centre; I leave that matter to the analytical chemists, for the insides of omnibuses I never use myself by any chance.
    But the outside of a bus, let me observe, is a very different position, and one that is most charming in many respects. In the first place, it affords, by reason of its elevation, the best air in London, with the exception of that obtained by Mr. Glaisher during his metropolitan ascents, which are, after all, quite exceptional cases, and scarcely need to have been mentioned, only that I am so anxious to be fair. Secondly, it affords the best view, and that without even the above exception; for although Mr. G. may have panorama and chimney-tops in immense variety, he cannot pursue the engrossing study of mankind - inclusive, of course, of the female sex - to nearly such advantage as [-179-] can I upon the knife-board. In great thoroughfares, such as Holborn, I allow that I can only survey, with distinctness, what is going on in the first floors; but when that street is "up "- as it has been for the last twelvemonth, and probably will be for twelve months to come - and the busses are driven into the by-streets, the second floors, and even the attics, are exposed to my view, as clearly as though I were Asmodeus, and had lifted the roofs off. The people thus invaded are not accustomed to defend themselves from surveillance, as are the inhabitants of the dwellings that skirt our lines of railway; they have no window-blinds, or, if they have, they do not use them. They quarrel, they eat and drink, they play at dominoes, and they retire to rest, unconscious of the fact, that they are under my observation, or indifferent to it. I know of no method by which a foreigner can make himself acquainted with what is called "the inner life" of the lower classes of London-of all the grades, in fact, below that which uses Venetian blinds - so well as by [-180-] journeying to and from the City to the West End on the top of a bus, while Holborn is in the hands of the Commissioners of Drainage.
    Diverging from that great artery at Hart Street, Bloomsbury, on the eastward route, he will find himself in a labyrinth of narrow ways, wherein, by turning himself sharply round, he will even be able to observe both sides of the streets; although this must not be done too rapidly, lest in the attempt to combine his information he may confuse it, through the reception of the second image upon his retina, before the first has wholly faded away. Thus, a gentleman may be shaving in the second floor of No. 9, while a lady may be trying on what I believe is termed "a skirt" in No. 140 opposite; whereupon the note book of the too observant foreigner will record that the ladies of Theobald Street use razors, and the men wear stays. He may make some statements, however, with perfect truth, which are calculated to excite astonishment even among the fellow-countrymen of those he describes, since all have not enjoyed the advantages of sur-[-181-]veying English life from a slow-moving, unexpected, and exalted point of view.
    Many, for instance, will be surprised to learn that the whole population of the district of which I speak eat whelks for supper. They generally pick them out with a pin, though some will break them with the handles of their knives; nor are pieces of shell considered an impediment to gastronomical pleasure. I once saw a lady crunch a whelk under her heel (and she hadn't a shoe on either), but she was in a hurry. They also consume shrimps in enormous quantities at all seasons of the year. There is a venerable individual (male) living at the corner of King's Road, second floor, front, whom I have twice observed in the act of eating shrimps in bed. I do not know what may be his profession, but it is certainly one that does not keep him up late at night, or interfere with what I may truly designate a healthy appetite: how often, at a dinner of eight courses, have I envied that happy, unsophisticated man! Acres of green-meat are devoured in this neighbourhood at tea-time, which is about 4.30 PM. Often [-182-] and often have I been an unseen witness to that deathless entertainment given by Sairey Gamp to Betsey Prig; but I am bound to say, that after the season for that delicacy has well set in, she rarely forgets "the cowcumber." They sup the vinegar up with their knives with intense enjoyment, while my fastidious teeth are set on edge with the mere contemplation of them. flow they eat radishes, too, tails and all, and celery down to the very roots! No males are ever to be beheld at these festive scenes. Their day's work is not yet over, or, if it is, they are in the ground-floor parlour of the Cat and Cauliflower, where I could take a clearer observation of them, if they did not envelope themselves in such remarkably thick tobacco smoke; or, if not there, they are in the excellent dry skittle-alley attached to the same establishment, and that dull thunder which comes up to me, as I roll by in comparative silence, is the result of their scientific "flooring."
    When at home, the male inhabitants of this quarter invariably sit in their shirt-sleeves, without the slightest regard to the state of the temperature. [-183-] I believe this to be a procedure at once natural and becoming; for although chilly and artificial myself, and therefore without any personal prejudice in favour of the custom, I have observed the same predilection to exist in certain stalwart persons of my own class in life, whose example I revere. At college, in chambers at Lincoln's Inn and the Temple, on long-vacation excursions in the country, and, in short, on all occasions when the conventionalities of life are most easily dispensed with, I have seen this desire to sit in their shirt-sleeves budding, expanding, and at last, as it were, blossoming into flower. The test of friendship with some men is, whether they can say to their host: "I know you don't mind my taking off my coat, old fellow." And, for my part, I always say: "Certainly not; you may take off anything you like,2 for I know how it pleases them. It is not by any means vulgarity that prompts this request; no vulgar man would venture to make it; but rather, I think, some sublime yearning after freedom and the golden age of humanity. Curiously enough, when this privilege is once conceded, it seems [-184-] appropriate to quaff porter from a pewter pot, and to apply the back of the hand to the lips, which is never done, in the best circles, under any other circumstances whatever. The drinking of porter from the metal is an enjoyment confined solely to males, in all my observations from the knife-board, I never but once saw one of the fair sex bury her expressive features in the sparkling foam, arid that was only to please her lord and master, who regarded her all the time as lovingly as though she were Aphrodite. This occurred in a first-floor in Gray's Inn Lane, in a family of good position.
    A whole volume might indeed be written on life as seen from the knife-board, and one that would make rather a sensation if it recorded the actual facts. But besides the objects of external interest which are being continually presented to the travelling student of humanity, there is immense attraction for him in those remarkable persons, the Driver and the Conductor of the bus itself, who have never yet been properly investigated.
    The omnibus-driver is perhaps the only specimen [-185-] of the true philosopher now extant; the gravest, the most serious, the most sententious, and the most egotistical of created human beings. A Beadle may possess some of his attributes, perhaps, but he lacks the elevation, and especially tile catholicism. My driver looks down, not upon a parish, but upon what may not improperly be termed the world at large, for eleven hours every day of his life. Nothing, or at least very little, is concealed from him, and he has only to turn his head to witness the most surprising social phenomena. This tremendous and varied experience is a little too much for him.
    "I am not a conceited person," observed a late classical professor of great eminence, in the confidence of a friendly conversation, "but I do believe that I know everything except Botany."
    Now, that is exactly the opinion of my omnibus-driver, with this added that he knows Botany also. How is it possible that he should not know it? Conceive the flower-pots which pass under his eye, upon balconies and porches; the boxes of migno-[-186-]nette, filling up half the little windows in district N.; "the coleworts, the marygoulds, the toolips, the chickweed, and those blessed creepers "- I use the very words of my driver with reference to this subject, in place of any Linnaean classification. Don't he know? If not, then he would like to know the man as does know. This omniscience has the effect of endowing my driver with that "scorn of scorn" which has been attributed to the Poet only. He has a truly withering contempt for all his fellow-creatures who are not also omnibus-drivers, and even for those, if they are in opposition, or do not belong to his own company. Only yesterday, a pastry-cook's vehicle, with Ice written very legibly on the back of it, interfered with our progression in a narrow thoroughfare. The young man who drove it looked in no degree inferior to pastry-cooks' young men in general. He was not in the least to blame for his position in front of us, which he had obtained, not by hazardous driving, but by order of seniority. Yet he fell under the crushing satire of my driver, thus - Git out there, with your [-187-] old ice-cart. It was a bran-new one; and he could not "git out," unless by cutting his way through a coal-waggon and a Parcels Delivery. Yet so superior was the tone of this reproof that the young man blanched beneath it; nor did he venture to return a single word, when as we passed by him, grinding his newly-painted axletree, my driver added scornfully, "You scaly warmint. Without admitting the remark to be quite courteous, I confess it filled me with admiration for the speaker, "looking right on with calm eternal eyes," and unconscious of having committed the least breach of good-manners. I have known a clerk in a government office to be every whit as insolent, but then the air was not so natural. The official endearours to be rude, but the omnibus-driver is rude without knowing it. Perhaps the dangers that he has perpetually to encounter make him feel more than mortal.
    To play at the game whose moves are death,
    It maketh a man draw too proud a breath,
must, I have often thought, have been originally [-188-] written of one of  this profession, although it has been applied to soldiers; for, consider the perils which have to be guarded against between the Royal Oak, in Bayswater, for instance, to the Bank eight times per diem. The slippings-up of the horses and their comings-down - the drivings-over children at crossings, and - worse - the knockings-under to policemen consequent on having done it! The long, long glide down Holborn Hill, in the course of which, if a single link, or strap, or spoke gives way, all is over! The concourse of hostile vehicles, most of them going the other way, amid which, if eye and hand are not in exact unison, or if the head "goes" for a single instant, the bus becomes a wreck, and the cause of wrecks in fifty others! One half-look to right or left-and there are faces among the daughters of men so fair that they will attract even omnibus-drivers - and an obstruction may be produced at Tottenham Court Road which will presently paralyse Skinner Street, and check time circulation of Cornhill.
    Nay, the bus itself is not that ark of safety [-189-] which some imagine it to be. There are some busses - and especially in times when London is thronged - which, although fair to see, and brilliant with paint and gilding, are rotten and unsafe; decayed vehicles temporarily furbished up to meet the emergency, fulfilling the beautiful natural law of Supply and Demand up to a certain point, when they become, in an instant, chips and lucifer-matches. Thus it happened to a bus in the Exhibition-time.

It had traces of age on the opening-day,
Just a general flavour of mild decay,
But "nothing local," as one may say,
There couldn't be that, for the patcher's art
Had made it so like in every part,
That there wasn't a chance for one to start;
For the wheels were just as strong as the thus,
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whipple-tree neither less nor more,
And the back crossbar as strong as the fore;
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt,
In another hour it would be worn out.

Loaded with passengers inside and out, this hypocrite of a bus got its fore-wheel (which was " off" [-190-] immediately) into a gutter in St. James' Street, and in the attempt at extrication the catastrophe occurred.

All at once the horses stood still
Expectant, on that St. James' Street hill
First a shiver, and then a thrill;
Then something decidedly like a spill.

What do you think the driver found
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old bus in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill, and ground!

You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How time bus went to pieces all at once-
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

This is surely a species of accident calculated to appal the strongest mind ; yet that omnibus-driver (whose name, let it be recorded, was Oliver Wendell Holmes) is not described as having exhibited a trace of emotion previous to the dissolution of his vehicle, of the critical state of which he could scarcely have been ignorant. Omnibus-drivers, then, are brave, and very scornful; but it is fair to add, that this latter quality is much exaggerated by [-191-] the evil treatment they receive at the hands of their proprietors. They have two guineas a week, indeed, which is a larger salary than falls to the lot of curates whose university education has cost them a thousand pounds; but they are kept at work incessantly for twelve, or even fourteen hours per week-day, while on Sundays they are worked as hard as the curates. They are allowed but twenty minutes or so for their dinner, and if any unusual obstruction has detained their vehicle, even that time for refreshment is proportionally curtailed.
    "I runs down to dinner, and then I runs up again," remarked one of this persecuted class, whose weight could not have been much less than twenty stone; and if ever I heard pathos, it was in his manly tones the very image of his "running" either up or down, set forth the dire necessity for haste in time most striking colours. That antetype of the omnibus-driver, time stage-coachman, was never hurried after this fashion; but, nevertheless, line was an inferior being. His views of life were [-192-] less extended, and his knowledge was mainly confined to horse-flesh. His pride, too, was derived from a lower source-namely, the excellence of his team. Now, fortunately for the subject of my panegyric, the superiority of his spirit is not dependent upon time beauty and condition of the steeds under his control; if it were so, he would be humble indeed.
    But the most interesting of all the subjects of contemplation which are presented to me upon the knife-board is the social relation which exists between the Driver and the Conductor. We hear of brother and sister, father and son, man and wife, and a good deal of that newly-discovered relative, the co-respondent; but the bond between the omnibus-driver and his conductor has escaped the notice alike of the natural historian and of the writer of fiction. No tale of the affections, so far as I know, derives its interest from the peculiar sympathy existing between these two classes; no driver retires from his box into some place of picturesque obscurity - say Littlehampton - and [-193-] passes the remainder of his days in sentimental regret for a Conductor, repeating to himself, "Bank Bank!" or "Twopence all the way," (the cry of his lost favourite,) by the passengerless seashore. I throw the suggestion out for the sensation-novelists, who have, singularly enough, overlooked this phase of sentiment.
    In life, however, I am bound to say that the mutual behaviour of these persons does not convey the idea of morbid attachment; they contradict one another too flatly for that, and pass too protracted a period without speaking. There is an eloquence in silence, I am well aware, but not in the silence which is broken by ringing a bell, or sounding a whistle, or flapping the roof of an omnibus impatiently with a leather strap. Yet these are the communications which pass between the parties in question, whenever their conversation is suspended through temporary tiff or disinclination for talk. It is never discontinued through that delicate sensitiveness which sometimes forbids time interchange of friendly speech in the presence of [-194-] strangers. There may be four persons beside myself upon one side of the knife-board, and five upon the other, without that circumstance checking in the very least the sprightly flow of the Conductor's remarks, addressed across us all, to his friend the Driver. The former is generally the chief speaker, and is content to receive the most sententious answers, or even responsive growls, from his guide, philosopher, and friend, lie passes a life in all respects the reverse of that of the driver; he never sits down ; he flies from step to step, or to the ground, with the agility of an anthropoid ape; he is gallant to an extraordinary degree, and often induces unconscious females bound for Islington to patronize his vehicle, though it is going to London Bridge; he is almost always a humorist of considerable ability, and is never restricted in the expression of his sentiments by circumstances of conventional restraint - such as, for instance, that the individual who is the subject of his satire is within hearing.
    [-195-] The Conductor is on very much time same terms with his Driver as certain ladies of rank and fashion are with their husbands. Always apprehensive of a rebuff, he does his best to make things pleasant, and keep his lord in good-humour, but yet without subservience, in case of protracted sulks in his superior, he is himself prepared for the offensive, and "Now, then, stoopid, off-side, didn't I tell you. Darn me, if ever I seed a fellow miss his chances like you," is a specimen of the sardonic style in which he may be driven to address the "guv'nor," if all his arts of fascination have failed to please. As, however, in the case of time fashionable couples above alluded to, the two are always unanimous in running down their common friends. Depreciatory remarks concerning "Bill" and his Bess (evidently visiting acquaintances of both parties) are freely interchanged between them; one contemptuously opines that "that'ere boy" - the offspring, as I gather, of the above pair - don't weigh eight pounds;" to [-196-] which the other replies: "No, nor seven neither." And "What about that trottin' pony of his?" asks the Conductor, radiant with satire. "Ah, what indeed!" grunts the Driver; "why, nothin' at all."
    It may be a little vulgar, but I greatly delight in listening to suggestive conversation of this sort, and much prefer it to the sentences which drift into my hearing in elegant assemblies, without meaning, or even a base for the imagination to build upon. I picture Bill and Bess, their baby, and their pony under tax, and am perfectly satisfied with the presentment, until, all of a sudden, who should meet us but Bess herself, with the babe in question on her lap, and driving the very pony of which I have heard such depreciatory remarks. The animal, however, is not in motion, but standing opposite a very genteel public-house, and the lady has deputed the reins to a female friend who sits beside her, and is herself partaking of refreshment in the form of Hollands, administered to her by an obsequious potboy. "Lor, Mr. Miller," observes she, colouring a little as she [-197-] recognises our driver, "I was just taking a glass to keep the cold out.* [* The thermometer on the day in question was 65 in the shade.]  - Lor, and you too, Mr. Parks, how do you do?"
    Whereupon both driver and conductor go into an ecstasy after their very different manners: and "Ain't Bill's old woman fond of a glass of water?" screams Mr. Parks across me, sitting on the knife-board. "I believe you," replies Mr. Miller; "and that'ere baby, too!" adds he; but with reference to what circumstance I cannot tell. He is put in thorough good-humour, however, until we meet with a South Kensington bus far too crowded with passengers to be gratifying. He exchanges a surly turn of the wrist with his brother-driver; but the conductor of the fortunate vehicle is anxious to have his triumph recognised in a more signal manner. "Here's a blessed lot on 'em, ain't there?" exclaims he, indicating his fares with a wave of his hand, as if they were dry goods; "it's them presents down at Kensington; I likes presents, I do. No answer is re-[-198-] turned to this self-congratulatory speech; but Mr. Parks remarks moodily to Mr. Miller, that "that there Jack Walker is always owdacious lively when he's full." This would almost seem a contradiction in terms, since people in that condition are seldom or never lively; but the observation refers to the fulness, not of Mr. John Walker, but of the omnibus which he has the honour to conduct.
    And here, let me say, as one accustomed to the knife-board, that not only are Mr. Parks, Mr. Walker, and most of their class extraordinarily lively when full, but, whether full or empty, exceedingly kind and considerate to women and children, helping them carefully down the step, and even tenderly accompanying them through the perilous streams of traffic to the kerbstone of safety. Their behaviour in this respect is in the strongest contrast with that of cabmen.
    As to how the omnibus-driver conducts himself socially when off his box, I have no information to offer; but when serving on a job, and not engaged in public traffic, his nature undergoes a revolution. [-199-] On the night of the illuminations on the occasion of the royal marriage, I chanced to sit next the driver of a bus who was acting in a private capacity. Nothing could exceed the ease and affability of his manners. He drank the best part of half-a-dozen of sherry, and ate sandwiches in such mighty layers, that the task of satisfying him seemed as hopeless as that of supplying a Russian bear with sugar-coated Bath-buns. All on a sudden, however, he observed that he had had enough of them, and produced a loaf and half a cheese from his pocket, which he "worked off" (I use his very words) to the last crumb. Eventually, I regret to state, he got politely intoxicated. This did not incapacitate him from driving, but it confined his conversation to a single remark, which he repeated, I should think, about nine hundred times between Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park Corner. "All I ses is, let me only give satisfacshun." And that was all he did say. I was upwards of eight hours upon omnibus-top on that particular occasion, and I confess that I had more [-200-]  than enough of it. But in a general way, I repeat that the most charming method of metropolitan travel is on the knife-board of a 'Bus.