Coming out of the theatre, we found it utterly impossible to get a taxicab; and, though it was raining slightly, walked through Leicester Square in the hope of picking one up as it returned down Piccadilly. Numbers of hansoms and four-wheelers passed, or stood by the curb, hailing us feebly, or not even attempting to attract our attention, but every taxi seemed to have its load. At Piccadilly Circus, losing patience, we beckoned to a four-wheeler and resigned ourselves to a long, slow journey. A sou'-westerly air blew through the open windows, and there was in it the scent of change, that wet scent which visits even the hearts of towns and inspires the watcher of their myriad activities with thought of the restless Force that forever cries: "On, on!" But gradually the steady patter of the horse's hoofs, the rattling of the windows, the slow thudding of the wheels, pressed on us so drowsily that when, at last, we reached home we were more than half asleep. The fare was two shillings, and, standing in the lamplight to make sure the coin was a half-crown before handing it to the driver, we happened to look up. This cabman appeared to be a man of about sixty, with a long, thin face, whose chin and drooping grey moustaches seemed in permanent repose on the up-turned collar of his old blue overcoat. But the remarkable features of his face were the two furrows down his cheeks, so deep and hollow that it seemed as though that face were a collection of bones without coherent flesh, among which the eyes were sunk back so far that they had lost their lustre. He sat quite motionless, gazing at the tail of his horse. And, almost unconsciously, one added the rest of one's silver to that half-crown. He took the coins without speaking; but, as we were turning into the garden gate, we heard him say:
"Thank you; you've saved my life."
Not knowing, either of us, what to reply to such a curious speech, we closed the gate again and came back to the cab.
"Are things so very bad?"
"They are," replied the cabman. "It's done with--is this job. We're not wanted now." And, taking up his whip, he prepared to drive away.
"How long have they been as bad as this?"
The cabman dropped his hand again, as though glad to rest it, and answered incoherently:
"Thirty-five year I've been drivin' a cab."
And, sunk again in contemplation of his horse's tail, he could only be roused by many questions to express himself, having, as it seemed, no knowledge of the habit.
"I don't blame the taxis, I don't blame nobody. It's come on us, that's what it has. I left the wife this morning with nothing in the house. She was saying to me only yesterday: 'What have you brought home the last four months?' 'Put it at six shillings a week,' I said. 'No,' she said, 'seven.' Well, that's right--she enters it all down in her book."
"You are really going short of food?"
The cabman smiled; and that smile between those two deep hollows was surely as strange as ever shone on a human face.
"You may say that," he said. "Well, what does it amount to? Before I picked you up, I had one eighteen-penny fare to-day; and yesterday I took five shillings. And I've got seven bob a day to pay for the cab, and that's low, too. There's many and many a proprietor that's broke and gone--every bit as bad as us. They let us down as easy as ever they can; you can't get blood from a stone, can you?" Once again he smiled. "I'm sorry for them, too, and I'm sorry for the horses, though they come out best of the three of us, I do believe."
One of us muttered something about the Public.
The cabman turned his face and stared down through the darkness.
"The Public?" he said, and his voice had in it a faint surprise. "Well, they all want the taxis. It's natural. They get about faster in them, and time's money. I was seven hours before I picked you up. And then you was lookin' for a taxi. Them as take us because they can't get better, they're not in a good temper, as a rule. And there's a few old ladies that's frightened of the motors, but old ladies aren't never very free with their money--can't afford to be, the most of them, I expect."
"Everybody's sorry for you; one would have thought that----"
He interrupted quietly: "Sorrow don't buy bread . . . . I never had nobody ask me about things before." And, slowly moving his long face from side to side, he added: "Besides, what could people do? They can't be expected to support you; and if they started askin' you questions they'd feel it very awkward. They know that, I suspect. Of course, there's such a lot of us; the hansoms are pretty nigh as bad off as we are. Well, we're gettin' fewer every day, that's one thing."
Not knowing whether or no to manifest sympathy with this extinction, we approached the horse. It was a horse that "stood over" a good deal at the knee, and in the darkness seemed to have innumerable ribs. And suddenly one of us said: "Many people want to see nothing but taxis on the streets, if only for the sake of the horses."
The cabman nodded.
"This old fellow," he said, "never carried a deal of flesh. His grub don't put spirit into him nowadays; it's not up to much in quality, but he gets enough of it."
"And you don't?"
The cabman again took up his whip.
"I don't suppose," he said without emotion, "any one could ever find another job for me now. I've been at this too long. It'll be the workhouse, if it's not the other thing."
And hearing us mutter that it seemed cruel, he smiled for the third time.
"Yes," he said slowly, "it's a bit 'ard on us, because we've done nothing to deserve it. But things are like that, so far as I can see. One thing comes pushin' out another, and so you go on. I've thought about it--you get to thinkin' and worryin' about the rights o' things, sittin' up here all day. No, I don't see anything for it. It'll soon be the end of us now--can't last much longer. And I don't know that I'll be sorry to have done with it. It's pretty well broke my spirit."
"There was a fund got up."
"Yes, it helped a few of us to learn the motor-drivin'; but what's the good of that to me, at my time of life? Sixty, that's my age; I'm not the only one--there's hundreds like me. We're not fit for it, that's the fact; we haven't got the nerve now. It'd want a mint of money to help us. And what you say's the truth--people want to see the end of us. They want the taxis--our day's over. I'm not complaining; you asked me about it yourself."
And for the third time he raised his whip.
"Tell me what you would have done if you had been given your fare and just sixpence over?"
The cabman stared downward, as though puzzled by that question.
"Done? Why, nothing. What could I have done?"
"But you said that it had saved your life."
"Yes, I said that," he answered slowly; "I was feelin' a bit low. You can't help it sometimes; it's the thing comin' on you, and no way out of it--that's what gets over you. We try not to think about it, as a rule."
And this time, with a "Thank you, kindly!" he touched his horse's flank with the whip. Like a thing aroused from sleep the forgotten creature started and began to draw the cabman away from us. Very slowly they travelled down the road among the shadows of the trees broken by lamplight. Above us, white ships of cloud were sailing rapidly across the dark river of sky on the wind which smelled of change. And, after the cab was lost to sight, that wind still brought to us the dying sound of the slow wheels.