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, " Lor!"
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 man." See!"
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.