NOW I can die with a clear mind, facing the other world unflinching.
Earth has no more to offer me.
And yet it came suddenly, by accident, in the meanest of streets and
the most ordinary of squares. In the dead south-eastern ventricle of the heart of London it arrived at noon: in the sight of none more worthy
than a servant who was cleaning doorsteps, a man in control of a
furniture-van, and myself.
One hansom — Number 97,463 — entered Rupert Square, which is not yet paved with wood pavement. The horse was a mealy bay, and in the
splashboard of the conveyance a clock was fixed in order that the fare
might watch the errors of the cabman. From the opposite end of the
square appeared a man, long-bearded, cloth-capped, Inverness-cape
robed, thick-booted, and evidently a mariner but newly come from the
seas. He hailed the hansom loudly with large shouts. The hansom
answered the hail. The cloth-capped man spoke long and earnestly to
the driver, interlarding his directions with the technicalities of the sea.
What bond of sympathy was between driver and driven I dare not say.
It is enough for those less fortunate than I to know that the driver
answered after the use of infuriated cabmen. The fare stood with his
foot on the step and responded to the toast of his eternal perdition in a
short but elegant speech. He then dived into the cab.
“I won’t take you,” said the cabby, “not for any price. No, not
though you bought the ‘ole bloomin’ turn-out. You ain’t fit not to be
druv in a dust-cart with a glandered ‘orse in front an’ the knacker’s
depety be’ind, you ain’t. You call yourself a man. I’ve seen a better
man than you made outer chewed paper with no gum! You get outer
my keb, you rusty-‘aired, slink-jawed, pick-nosed, gin-faced son of a broken-down four-wheeler. G’out!”
He delivered his oration through the trap-door, and a big brown fist
came up and stung him on the nose. The horse stayed where he had
drawn up, close to the kerb. The cabby, shortening his whip, drove the
butt through the trap-door and generally stirred up the contents. Then,
for reasons best known to himself, he painfully hauled out his weapon
and commenced lashing into the front most scientifically. A stray cut
caught the horse on the quarters, and he began to trot. The cabby
shortened his whip and flicked deftly over the brow of the hansom. A
hand detained the whip-lash and a knobby stick plunged through the
trap, as a shark rears himself on end in the summer seas of the Equator, and caught the cabby obliquely on the chin, the upper lip, and a portion of the nose, causing him to use language which was historical.
But the servant-girl and the man with the furniture-van were the only
spectators. The railed fronts of Rupert Square, S.E., gave no sign of life.
The cabby drew the horse-blanket swiftly over the trap-door and leaned
upon it with both elbows, sending the lash into the front as occasion
offered. A jingle of glass and woodwork attested that the fare had pulled
down the glass. The horse trotted stolidly round Rupert Square.
“Get outer that,” shouted the cabby. The fare might have been a
mummy, for any response that he gave. “You ain’t fit to be druv not
in the paupers’ hearse, you ain’t, not though the corpse was your father.”
He addressed these remarks at first to Rupert Square, and added a
second edition when he cautiously raised the trap-door. Again the
knobby stick stabbed aloft and got home on the cabby’s right cheek-bone, while a hairy hand grasped at the horse-blanket and dragged it
into the depths of the hansom before the cabby could arrest its departure.
The horse continued to trot at not more than six or less than four miles
round and round the square.
“I’ll ‘ave you outer that if I ‘ave to set fire to the ‘ole bloomin’ cab,”
said the proprietor; and upon the word the trap opened and a red-hot
fusee hit him in the eye. Much as I disapproved of his conduct, I
respected the fare. He was fighting an uphill battle at fearful odds. A
second fusee followed; but there was neither exclamation nor oath to
accompany the flight. Time on a tour, Death abroad for a jaunt, could
not have been more methodical or more silent in their proceedings. And
the horse trotted round and round Rupert Square as the cabman sat
back and tried to dodge the flaming “braided fixed stars.” Not for anything on earth would I have interfered. The one desire of my delighted
soul was that all the policemen in London might die on the spot to allow
a fair field for the combatants; and in that regard the man with the
furniture-van was with me. The servant-girl opened her mouth and said,
To the fusee succeeded the sudden savage spurts of the stick; all
delivered in absolute silence. Then the horse-blanket was flung out into
the road through the lower section of the window hastily raised for that
end. Followed the nickel-plated cigar-holder, a box of matches, the
reading-lamp at the back, and fragments of the mirrors at the sides. The
horse continued to trot, while at each output the cabby lashed blindly
over the front of the cab. “Why in the world,” said I to the man with
the furniture-van, “doesn’t he take that lunatic to the nearest police-
station?” “He knows something worth two of that,” said the furniture
At the head of Rupert Square stands a hydrant for the water-carts.
The cabman checked his horse here just as a swift, sharp jab of the
stick through the half-raised window dissolved the splashboard clock
into white enamel and yellow cog-wheels, and a flight of pieces bestrewed
the cabman’s cape. Out of his own slender purse the cabman proffered
three pence to a water-cart that stood by for the right of way. The
water-cart moved on as stolidly as its driver flung back the hose.
“Will you get out o’ that?” said the cabman through the trap-door
for the last time. There was no answer save a sound of ripping cloth.
The hose was swung over and adjusted to the trap-door of the hansom.
Have you ever heard the furious sizzle of the current as it hisses through the trap? If you have not, you are ignorant of the depth and significance of life.
I heard the cataract and a crash of broken glass. The fare had
smashed the window and was, through the shower-bath, pelting the
horse with the fragments of sash and crystal. They hurt the feelings of
the animal, who plunged forward. In vain the driver strove to hold his
foe by lashing in at the now freed avenue of access. The knobby stick
appeared over the doors, furiously prodding the maddened horse, or
anon striking wildly at the reins right and left.
At the only exit from Rupert Square it delivered one terrific blow
on the near rein, driving the beast full into the shoulder of a respectable
residence, and all things were dissolved into their elements—dripping
cab, kicking horse, and dispersed driver. The fare, still preserving his
unbroken silence, jammed his cape over his brows and ran. The cabman breathed heavily as he lay on the pavement. The horse dealt with the splashboard.
“Well I never!” said the furniture man, and a gleam in his eyes
showed me that he was a soul akin to mine.
The cabman picked himself up grunting. He surveyed the wreck
calmly, and then, as one who felt that an explanation was due to the
world, said, “It’s mee brother.”
But what it all meant — whether the brother was a maniac, or one
merely working out a family feud — whether he invariably treated all his
hansoms thus curiously or only at intervals when his madness was on
him — I cannot tell.
This I know. I have seen a fight such as never was seen before since
London hansoms were first made: and the furniture-van man alone of
4,900,000 saw it with me.
The servant-girl didn’t understand.