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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The London Cabby

By Louise Chandler Moulton (1835–1908)

[Random Rambles. 1881.]

SHALL I ever forget my first solitary experience of the tender mercies of a London cabby? I had been there two weeks, perhaps, and had been driven here and there in friendly company; but at last I was to venture forth alone. It was a Sunday afternoon,—a lovely June day, which should have produced a melting mood even in the hard heart of a cabby. I had been bidden to an informal five o’clock tea at the house of a certain poet in a certain quiet “road” among the many “roads” of Kensington. An American friend put me sadly but hopefully into a hansom. I asked him how much I was to pay, and was told eighteenpence. I always ask this question by way of precaution; but I have found since that there is usually a sad discrepancy of opinion between my friend at the beginning and my driver at the end of the route; however, I had not learned this fact at that early epoch.

“Eighteenpence,” said my friend. “I think you’ll be all right; but if there’s any trouble, you know, you must ask for his number, and I’ll have him up for you to-morrow.”

I thought he was pretty well “up” already. Indeed the upness, if I may coin a word, of the driver is the most extraordinary thing about a hansom.

I heard my friend announce the street and number of my destination, and the sweet little cherub that sat up aloft make reply:

“The lady knows where she’s a-goin’, don’t she?” and then we drove away. To me the drive did not seem long. As I have said, it was a day in June:

  • Sweet day, so pure, so calm, so bright,
  • The bridal of the earth and sky.”
  • I could not see much of the sky, however, but I caught, when I strained my eyes upward, glimpses of a great, deep, blue dome, with white clouds drifting across it now and then, like the wings of gigantic birds. As we got a little out of the thick of the town, the sweet breath of roses from gardens in bloom filled the air; in the gentle breeze the tree-boughs waved lazily; there was everywhere a brooding warmth and peace, which I pleased my democratic heart by thinking that cabby must also enjoy. Was he not grateful to me, I wondered, for taking him a little off his accustomed track into these pleasant paths? Suddenly my revery was broken by his voice. He had opened the trap in the roof, and was calling down to me from his perch:

    “Which o’ them turns, ma’am?”

    I had never been in Kensington before. I looked on in front, and down the cross-street at each side. Instinct failed me; I had not even a conjecture to hazard. I answered mildly:

    “Why, I don’t know, I’m sure.”

    “Oh, you don’t know, don’t you? Well, then, I’m sure I don’t. The gentleman said as you knew where you was a-goin’, or I wouldn’t a’ took you.”

    Then I spoke severely. The dignity of a freeborn American asserted itself. I said:

    “I am not driving this cab. I wish to go to 163 Blank Road, but it is not my business to find the way. You can ask the first policeman you see.”

    But the peace of the June afternoon was over. It seemed to me that the very hansom moved sullenly. We kept bringing up with a jerk at some corner, while cabby shouted out his inquiry, and then we went on again. At last we reached Blank Road. I saw the name on a street-sign, and soon we drew up before 163. I extracted eighteenpence from my purse, and handed it with sweet serenity to my charioteer. Words fail me to describe the contempt upon his expressive countenance. He turned the money over in his hand and looked at it, as a naturalist might at a curious insect. At length he demanded, in a tone which implied great self-control on his part:

    “Will you tell me what this ’ere money is fur?”

    “It is your fare,” I said, with a smile which should have melted his heart, but didn’t.

    “My fare, is it?” and his voice rose to a wild shriek. “My fare, is it? And you take me away, on a Sunday afternoon, from a beat where I was gettin’ a dozen fares an hour, and bring me to this God-forsaken place, and then offer me one-and-sixpence! My fare! I ought to ’ave a crown; and a ’alf a crown is the very least as I’ll take.”

    I took out another silver shilling, and handed it to him; but I felt that I had the dignity of an American to maintain. I remembered what my friend had told me, and I said loftily:

    “And now I will take your number, if you please.”

    “Yes, I’ll give you my number. Oh, yes, you shall ’ave my number and welcome!” and he tore off from somewhere a sort of tin plate with figures on it. I had been accustomed to the printed slip which every French cocher hands you without asking; and it occurred to me that this metal card was rather clumsy, and that if he carried many such about him they must somewhat weigh down his pockets; but I knew that England was a country where they believed in making things solid and durable, and I supposed it was quite natural that cabbies should present their passengers with metal numbers instead of paper ones; so, holding the thing gingerly in my hand, I marched tranquilly up the steps of my friend’s house.

    I have seen in Italy and elsewhere various pictures of the descent of the fallen and condemned, but I think even Michael Angelo might have caught a new inspiration from the descent of my cabby. He plunged—I can think of no other word—down from his height, tore the badge from my trembling fingers, and shook his hard and brawny fist within the eighth of an inch of my tip-tilted nose.

    “’Ow dare you,” he screamed, “’ow dare you be makin’ off with my badge? I’ll ’ave you up, hif you don’t mind your heye.”

    And, indeed, I thought my eye very likely to need minding. But he mounted his perch again, badge in hand, and poured out imprecations like a flood, while I pulled franticly at bell and knocker. When at last I was in my friend’s drawing-room, I told my troublous tale.

    “Oh, I hope you have his number,” said my host.

    “No, he took it away, as I’m telling you.”

    “Oh, but don’t you remember it? You should have taken it down with a pencil.”

    Then I discovered what my mistake had been.

    I have never, since that first adventure with the London cabby, encountered anything quite so formidable and terrifying; but I still feel that the London Jehu is a being to be dreaded. My second experience of him was to drive under his auspices to a dinner-party. I gave him eighteenpence for a distance which I have since learned only entitled him to a shilling. He was a very polite cabman, quite the politest cabman I have ever seen. He regarded his one-and-sixpence with a gentle smile, a little tinged with melancholy. Then he touched his hat and said most respectfully:

    “I begs your pardon, but I thinks has you don’t know the distances. No lady has did know would give me less than two shillings.”

    I gave him another sixpence. I should have done so even if I had known better, his courtesy was so beguiling. He thanked me sweetly; then he said:

    “About what time would my lady be going ’ome? If I’m hin this neighborhood I’ll come for you.”

    I told him that I did not know; but he was evidently better informed than I was, for at about eleven o’clock a servant came to me and told me that the cabman who brought me was waiting for me; so I submitted to destiny and went home under his banner.

    Since then I have made the acquaintance of all sorts of cabmen. One of my latest adventures was with one who had committed the slight but pardonable error of mistaking whiskey for beer, and so was rather inclined to darken knowledge with want of understanding. It was a four-wheeler which he drove, and he was certainly agile of limb and anxious to do his duty, for at least once in every five minutes he presented himself at my window and asked in a most ingratiating manner if I would tell him just where I wanted to go. I suppose I told him some twenty times or more before we arrived at our not distant destination. Faithful to the last, he dismounted again and rang the bell; but this final politeness had nearly proved too much for him, for he fell his length in coming down the steps. He picked himself up, however, and jauntily handed me from his chariot, took the fare I gave him with thanks, and parted from me on the kindest terms.

    I have often wondered whether, if I had had the honor to have been born in London, my experience of cabby would have been just the same, or whether, even to his often bleared but perhaps not undiscriminating eyes, it is evident that I am a foreigner.