Tuesday, December 05, 2006


The Mysteries of a London "Growler"

We had to take a "growler," for the day looked rather threatening andwe agreed that it would be a very bad way of beginning our holiday by getting wet, especially when Fanny was only just coming round fromthe whooping cough. Holidays were rather scarce with us, and when wetook one we generally arranged some little treat, and went in forenjoying ourselves. On this occasion we were starting off fromHammersmith to the Alexandra Palace in all the dignity of afour-wheeler. What with the wife and her sister, and Tommy and Fannyand Jack, the inside was pretty well filled up, so I had to look outfor myself. I didn't adopt the plan of John Gilpin under similarcircumstances, but I took my waterproof and climbed up beside thedriver.

This driver was a knowing-looking old veteran, with a weather-beatenface and white side whiskers. It has always seemed to me that a Londoncabman is about the shrewdest of the human race, but this specimenstruck me as looking like the shrewdest of the cabmen. I tried to drawhim out a bit as we jogged along, for I am always fond of a chat; buthe was a bit rusty until I oiled his tongue with glass of gin when wegot as far as the "Green Anchor." Then he rattled away quickly enough,and some of what he said is worth trying to put down in black and white.

"Wouldn't a hansom pay me better?" he said, in answer to a questionof mine. "Why, of course it would. But look at the position! Afour-wheeler's a respectable conveyance, and the driver of it's arespectable man, but you can't say that of a rattling, splashing'ansom. Any boy would do for that job. Now, to my mind money hain'tto be compared to position, whatever a man's trade may be."

"Certainly not!" I answered.
"Besides, I've saved my little penny, and I'm got too old to changemy ways. I've begun on a growler, and I'll end on one. If you'llbelieve me, sir, I've been on the streets for seven-and-forty year."

"That's a long time," I said.

"Well, it's long for our trade," he replied. "You see, thereain't no other in the world that takes the steam out of a man so quickly--what with wet and cold and late hours, and maybe no hours at all. There'sfew that lasts at it as long as I have."

"You must have seen a deal of the world during that time," Iremarked. "There are few men who can have greater opportunities ofseeing life."

"The world!" he grunted, flicking up the horse with his whip. "I'veseen enough of it to be well-nigh sick of it. As to life, if you'dsaid death, you'd ha' been nearer the mark."

"Death!" I ejaculated.

"Yes, death," he said. "Why, bless your soul, sir, if I was to writedown all I've seen since I've been in the trade, there's not a manin London would believe me, unless maybe some o' the other cabbies. I tell ye I took a dead man for a fare once, and drove about with himnigh half the night. Oh, you needn't look shocked, sir, for thiswasn't the cab--no, nor the last one I had neither."

"How did it happen?" I asked, feeling glad, in spite of hisassurance, that Matilda had not heard of the episode.

"Well, it's an old story now," said the driver, putting a small pieceof very black tobacco into the corner of his mouth. "I daresay it'stwenty odd years since it happened, but it's not the kind o' thing asslips out of a man's memory. It was very late one night, and I wasworking my hardest to pick up something good, for I'd made a poorday's work of it. The theatres had all come out, and though I keptup and down the Strand till nigh one o'clock, I got nothing but oneeighteenpenny job. I was thinking of giving it up and going home,when it struck me that I might as well make a bit of a circuit, andsee if I couldn't drop across something. Pretty soon I gave agentleman a lift as far as the Oxford Road, and then I drove throughSt. John's Wood on my way home. By that time it would be abouthalf-past one, and the streets were quite quiet and deserted, for thenight was cloudy and it was beginning to rain. I was putting on thepace as well as my tired beast would go, for we both wanted to getback to our suppers, when I heard a woman's voice hail me out of aside street. I turned back, and there in about the darkest part ofthe road was standing two ladies--real ladies, mind you, for itwould take a deal of darkness before I would mistake one for theother. One was elderly and stoutish; the other was young, and had aveil over her face. Between them there was a man in evening dress,whom they were supporting on each side, while his back was propped upagainst a lamp-post. He seemed beyond taking care of himselfaltogether, for his head was sunk down on his chest, and he'd havefallen if they hadn't held him.

"'Cabman,' said the stout lady, with a very shaky voice, 'I wish youwould help us in this painful business.' Those were her veryhidentical words.

"'Cert'nly, mum,' I says for I saw my way to a good thing. 'Whatcan I do for the young lady and yourself?' I mentioned the otherin order to console her like, for she was sobbing behind her veilsomething pitiful.

"'The fact is, cabman,' she answers, 'this gentleman is my daughter'shusband. They have only just been married, and we are visiting at afriend's house near here. My son-in-law has just returned in a stateof complete intoxication, and my daughter and I have brought him outin the hope of seeing a cab in which we could send him home, for wehave most particular reasons for not wishing our friends to see himin this state, and as yet they are ignorant of it. If you woulddrive him to his house and leave him there, you would do us both avery great kindness, and we can easily account to our hosts for hisabsence.'

"I thought this rather a rum start, but I agreed, and no sooner hadI said the word than the old one she pulls open the door, and she andthe other, without waiting for me to bear a hand, bundled him inbetween them.

"'Where to?' I asked.

"'Forty-seven, Orange Grove, Clapham,' she said. 'Hoffman is thename. You'll easily waken the servants.'

"'And how about the fare?' I suggested, for I thought maybe theremight be a difficulty in collecting it at the end of the journey.

"'Here it is,' said the young one, slipping what I felt to be asovereign into my hand, and at the same time giving it a sort of agrateful squeeze, which made me feel as if I'd drive anywhere toget her out of trouble.

"Well, off I went, leaving them standing by the side of the road.The horse was well-nigh beat, but at last I found my way to 47,Orange Grove. It was a biggish house, and all quiet, as you maysuppose, at that hour. I rang the bell, and at last down came aservant--a man, he was.

"'I've got the master here,' I said.

"'Got who?' he asked.

"'Why Mr. Hoffman--your master. He's in the cab, not quitehimself. This is number forty-seven, ain't it?'

"'Yes, it's forty-seven, right enough; but my master's CaptainRitchie, and he's away in India, so you've got the wrong house.'

"'That was the number they gave me,' I said, 'But maybe he's come tohimself by this time, and can give us some information. He was deaddrunk an hour ago.'

"Down we went to the cab, the two of us, and opened the door. He hadslipped off the seat and was lying all in a heap on the floor.

"'Now, then, sir,' I shouted. 'Wake up and give us your address.'

"He didn't answer.

"I gave another shake. 'Pull yourself together,' I roared. 'Give usyour name, and tell us where you live.'

"He didn't answer again. I couldn't even hear the sound ofbreathing. Then a kind of queer feeling came over me, and I putdown my hand and felt his face. It was as cold as lead. The cove'sdead, mate,' I said.

"The servant struck a match, and we had a look at my passenger.He was a young, good-looking fellow, but his face wore anexpression of pain, and his jaw hung down. He was evidently notonly dead, but had been dead some time.

"'What shall we do?' said the flunkey. He was as white as deathhimself, and his hair bristled with fear.

"'I'll drive to the nearest police station,' I answered; and so Idid, leaving him shivering on the pavement. There I gave up my fare,and that was the last I ever saw of him."

"Did you never hear any more of it?" I asked.

"Hear! I thought I should never hear the end of it, what withexaminations and inquests and one thing and another. The doctorsproved that he must have been dead at the time he was shoved intothe cab. Just before the inquest four little blue spots came outon one side of his neck, and one on the other, and they said onlya woman's hand could have fitted over them, so they brought in averdict of willful murder; but, bless you, they had managed it soneatly that there was not a clue to the women, nor to the man either,for everything by which he might have been identified had beenremoved from his pockets. The police were fairly puzzled by thatcase. I've always thought what a bit o' luck it was that I got myfare, for I wouldn't have had much chance of it if it hadn't beenpaid in advance."

My friend the driver began to get very husky about the throat at thisstage of the proceedings, and slackened his speed very noticeably aswe approached a large public-house, so that I felt constrained tooffer him another gin, which he graciously accepted. The ladies hadsome wine, too, and I followed the example of my companion on thebox, so that we all started refreshed.
"The police and me's been mixed up a good deal," continued theveteran resuming his reminiscences: "They took the best customer Iever had away from me. I'd have made my fortin if they'd let himcarry on his little game a while longer."

Here, with the coquetry of one who knows that his words are ofinterest, the driver began to look around him with an air ofabstraction and to comment upon the weather.

"Well, what about your customer and the police?" I asked.

"It's not much to tell," he said, coming back to his subject. "Onemorning I was driving across Vauxhall Bridge when I was hailed by acrooked old man with a pair of spectacles on, who was standing atthe Middlesex end, with a big leather bag in his hand. 'Drive anywhereyou like,' he said; 'only don't drive fast for I'm getting old, andit shakes me to pieces.' He jumped in, and shut himself up, closingthe windows, and I trotted about with him for three hours, before helet me know that he had had enough. When I stopped, out he hoppedwith his big bag in his hand.

"'I say cabbie!' he said, after he had paid his fare.

"'Yes, sir,' said I, touching my hat.

"'You seem to be a decent sort of fellow, and you don't go in thebreak-neck way of some of your kind. I don't mind giving you thesame job every day. The doctors recommend gentle exercise of thesort, and you may as well drive me as another. Just pick me up atthe same place tomorrow.'

"Well, to make a long story short, I used to find the little man inhis place every morning, always with his black bag, and for nighon to four months never a day passed without his having his threehours' drive and paying his fare like a man at the end of it. Ishifted into new quarters on the strength of it, and was able to buya new set of harness. I don't say as I altogether swallowed thestory of the doctors having recommended him on a hot day to go aboutin a growler with both windows up. However, it's a bad thing in thisworld to be too knowing, so though I own I felt a bit curious attimes, I never put myself out o' the way to find out what the littlegame was. One day, I was driving tap to my usual place of droppinghim--for by this time we had got into the way of going a regularbeat every morning--when I saw a policeman waiting, with a perkysort of look about him, as if he had some job on hand. When thecab stopped out jumped the little man with his bag right into thearms of the 'bobby.'

"'I arrest you, John Malone,' says the policeman.

"'On what charge?' he answers as cool as a turnip.

"'On the charge of forging Bank of England notes,' says the 'bobby'.

"'Oh, then the game is up!' he cries, and with that he pulls off hisspectacles, and his wig and whiskers, and there he was, as smart ayoung fellow as you'd wish to see.

"'Good-bye, cabby,' he cried, as they led him off, and that was thelast I saw of him, marching along between two of them, and anotherbehind with the bag."

"And why did he take a cab?" I asked, much interested.

"Well, you see, he had all his plant for making the notes in thatbag. If he were to lock himself up in his lodging several hours aday it would soon set people wondering, to say nothing of the chanceof eyes at the window or key-hole. Again, you see, if he took ahouse all on his own hook, without servant nor anyone, it would lookqueer. So he made up his mind as the best way of working it was tocarry it on in a closed cab, and I don't know that he wasn't right. He was known to the police however, and that was how they spottedhim. Drat that van! It was as near as a touch to my off-wheel.

"Bless you, if I was to tell you all the thieves and burglars, andeven murderers, as have been in my growler one time or another, you'dthink I'd given the whole Newgate Calendar a lift, though to be surethis young chap as I spoke of was the only one as ever reg'lar set upin business there. There was one though as I reckon to be worse thanall the others put together, if he was what I think him to be. It'soften laid heavy on my mind that I didn't have that chap collaredbefore it was too late, for I might have saved some mischief. It wasabout ten years ago--I never was a good hand for dates--that Ipicked up a stout-built sailor-sort of fellow, with a reddishmoustache, who wanted to be taken down to the docks. After this chapas I told you of had taken such liberties with the premises I'd had alittle bit of a glass slit let in in front here--the same that yourlittle boy's flattening his nose against at this moment--so as Icould prevent any such games in the future, and have an idea,whenever I wished, of what was going on inside. Well, something oranother about this sailor fellow made me suspicious of him, and Itook a look at what he was after. He was sitting on the seat, sir,with a big lump o' coal in his lap, and was a looking at it mostattentive. Now this seemed to me rather a rum start, so I kept onwatching of him, for as you'll see, my window's not a very large one,and it's easier to see through it than to be seen. Well, he pulls aspring or something, and out jumps one of the sides of this bit ofcoal, and then I saw it was really a hollow box, painted, you see,and made rough so as to look like the other. I couldn't make head ortail of it anyhow, and indeed I'd pretty near forgot all about itwhen there came news of the explosion at Bemerhaven, and people beganto talk about coal torpedoes. Then I knew as in all probability I'dcarried the man who managed the business, and I gave word to thepolice, but they never could make anything of it. You know what a coaltorpedo is, don't you? Well, you see, a cove insures his ship formore than its value, and then off he goes and makes a box like a bito'coal, and fills it chock full with dynamite, or some other cowardlystuff of the sort. He drops this box among the other coals on the quaywhen the vessel is filling her bunkers, and then in course of timebox is shoveled on to the furnaces, when of course the whole ship isblown sky high. They say there's many a good ship gone to the bottomlike that."

"You've certainly had some queer experiences," I said.

"Why bless you!" remarked the driver, "I've hardly got fairlystarted yet, and here we are at the 'Alexandry.' I could tell youmany another story as strange as these--and true, mind ye, true asGospel. If ever your missus looks in need of a breath of fresh airyou send round for me--Copper Street, number ninety-four--andI'll give her a turn into the country, and if you'll come up besideme on the box, I'll tell you a good deal that may surprise you. Butthere's your little lad a hollering to you like mad, and the wifewants to get out, and the other one's a tapping at the window with aparasol. Take care how you get down, sir! That's right! Don'tforget number ninety-four! Good-day missus! Good-day, sir!" Andthe growler rumbled heavily away until I lost sight both of it and ofits communicative driver among the crowd of holiday-makers whothronged the road which led to the Palace.
Title : The Cabman's Story, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Produced by Darlene A. Cypser

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