Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Sights and Sounds of the Streets

The specialization of those fatuous Orientals, transient as it was, was of far greater duration than that of most individual impressions from the London crowd. London is a flood of life, from which in a powerful light you may catch the shimmering facet of a specific wavelet; but these fleeting glimpses leave only a blurred record with the most instantaneous apparatus. What remains of the vision of that long succession of streets called by successive names from Knightsbridge to Ludgate Hill is the rush of a human torrent, in which you are scarcely more aware of the single life than of any given ripple in a river. Men, women, children form the torrent, but each has been lost to himself in order to give it the collective immensity which abides in your mind's eye.

To the American city-dweller the London omnibus is archaic. Except for the few slow stages that lumber up and down Fifth Avenue, we have hardly anything of the omnibus kind in the whole length and breadth of our continent, and it is with perpetual astonishment and amusement that one finds it still prevailing in London, quite as if it were not as gross an anachronism as the war-chariot or the sedan-chair. It is ugly, and bewilderingly painted over with the names of its destinations, and clad with signs of patent medicines and new plays and breakfast foods in every color but the colors of the rainbow. It is ponderous and it rumbles forward with a sound of thunder, and the motion of a steamer when they put the table-racks on. Seen from the pavement, or from the top of another omnibus, it is of barbaric majesty; not, indeed, in the single example, but as part of the interminable line of omnibuses coming towards you. Then its clumsiness is lost in the collective uncouthness which becomes of a tremendous grandeur. The procession bears onward whole populations lifted high in the air, and swaying and lurching with the elephantine gait of things which can no more capsize than they can keep an even pace. Of all the sights of London streets, this procession of the omnibuses is the most impressive, and the common herd of Londoners of both sexes which it bears aloft seems to suffer a change into something almost as rich as strange. They are no longer ordinary or less than ordinary men and women bent on the shabby businesses that preoccupy the most of us; they are conquering princes, making a progress in a long triumph, and looking down upon a lower order of human beings from their wobbling steeps. It enhances their apparent dignity that they whom they look down upon are not merely the drivers of trucks and wagons of low degree, but often ladies of title in their family carriages, under the care of the august family coachman and footman, or gentlemen driving in their own traps or carts, or fares in the hansoms that steal their swift course through and by these ranks; the omnibuses are always the most monumental fact of the scene. They dominate it in bulk and height; they form the chief impulse of the tremendous movement, and it is they that choke from time to time the channel of the mighty torrent, and helplessly hold it in the arrest of a block.

No one can forecast the moment when, or the place where, a block may happen; but mostly it occurs in mid-afternoon, at the intersection of some street where a line of vehicles is crossing the channel of the torrent. Suddenly all is at a stand-still, and one of those wonderful English policemen, who look so slight and young after the vast blue bulks of our Irish force, shows himself in the middle of the channel, and holds back its rapids with the quiet gesture of extended hands. The currents and counter-currents gather and press from the rear and solidify, but in the narrow fissure the policeman stands motionless, with only some such slight stir of his extended hands as a cat imparts to her "conscious tail" when she waits to spring upon her prey.

The mute language of his hands, down to the lightest accent of the fingers, is intelligible to the dullest of those concerned in its interpretation, and is telepathically despatched from the nearest to the farthest driver in the block. While the policeman stands there in the open space, no wheel or hoof stirs, and it does not seem as if the particles of the mass could detach themselves for such separate movement as they have at the best. Softly, almost imperceptibly, he drops his arms, and lets fall the viewless barrier which he had raised with them; he remains where he was, but the immense bodies he had stayed liquefy and move in their opposite courses, and for that time the block is over.

If ever London has her epic poet, I think he will sing the omnibus; but the poet who sings the hansom must be of a lyrical note. I do not see how he could be too lyrical, for anything more like song does not move on wheels, and its rapid rhythm suggests the quick play of fancy in that impetuous form. We have the hansom with us, but it does not perform the essential part in New York life that it does in London life. In New York you may take a hansom; in London you must. You serve yourself of it as at home you serve yourself of the electric car; but not by any means at the same rate. Nothing is more deceitful than the cheapness of the hansom, for it is of such an immediate and constant convenience that the unwary stranger's shilling has slipped from him in a sovereign before he knows, with the swift succession of occasions when the hansom seems imperative. A 'bus is inexpensive, but it is stolid and bewildering; a hansom is always cheerfully intelligent. It will set you down at the very place you seek; you need walk neither to it nor from it; a nod, a glance, summons it or dismisses. The 'bus may be kind, but it is not flattering, and the hansom is flattering as well as kind; flattering to one's pride, one's doubt, one's timid hope. It takes all the responsibility for your prompt and unerring arrival; and you may trust it almost implicitly. At any point in London you can bid it go to any other with a confidence that I rarely found abused. Once, indeed, my cabman carried me a long way about at midnight, and when he finally left me at my door, he was disposed to be critical of its remoteness, while he apologized for the delay. I suggested that in a difficulty like his a map of London would be a good thing; but though he was so far in drink as to be able to take the joke in good part, he denied that a map would be of the least use to a cabman. Probably he was right; my map was not of the least use to me; and his craft seemed to feel their way about through the maze of streets and squares and circles by the same instinct that serves a pilot on a river in the dark. Their knowledge is a thing of the nerves, not of the brains, if there is a difference; or if there is none, then it is an affair of the subliminal consciousness, it is inspiration, it is genius. It could not well be overpaid, and the cabmen are careful that it is not underpaid. I heard, indeed, of two American ladies who succeeded in underpaying their cabman; this was their belief resting upon his solemn declaration; but I myself failed in every attempt of the kind. My cabman always said that it was not enough; and then I compromised by giving him too much. Many stories are told of the abusiveness of the class, but a simple and effective rule is to overpay them at once and be done with it. I have sometimes had one cast a sorrowing glance at the just fare pressed into his down-stretched palm, and drive off in thankless silence; but any excess of payment was met with eager gratitude. I preferred to buy the cabman's good-will, because I find this is a world in which I am constantly buying the good-will of people whom I do not care the least for, and I did not see why I should make an exception of cabmen. Only once did I hold out against an extortionate demand of theirs. That was with a cabman who drove me to the station, and said: "I'll have to get another sixpence for this, sir." "Well," I returned, with a hardihood which astonished me, "you won't get it of me." But I was then leaving London, and was no longer afraid. Now, such is the perversity of the human spirit, I am sorry he did not get the other sixpence of me. One always regrets these acts of justice, especially towards any class of fellow-beings whose habits of prey are a sort of vested rights. It is even in your own interest to suffer yourself to be plundered a little; it stimulates the imagination of the plunderer to high conceptions of equity, of generosity, which eventuate in deeds of exemplary honesty. Once, one of the party left a shawl in the hansom of a cabman whom I had, after my custom and principle, overpaid, and who had left us at a restaurant upon our second thought against a gallery where we had first proposed to be put down. We duly despaired, but we went and saw the pictures, and when we came out of the gallery there was our good cabman lying in wait to identify us as the losers of the shawl which he had found in his cab. Is it credible that if he had been paid only his legal fare he would have been at such virtuous pains? It may, indeed, be surmised that if the shawl was not worth more than an imaginable reward for its restoration he was actuated by self-interest, but this is a view of our common nature which I will not take.

One hears a good deal of the greater quiet of London after New York. I think that what you notice is a difference in the quality of the noise in London. What is with us mainly a harsh, metallic shriek, a grind of trolley wheels upon trolley tracks, and a wild battering of their polygonized circles upon the rails, is in London the dull, tormented roar of the omnibuses and the incessant cloop-cloop of the cab-horses' hoofs. Between the two sorts of noise there is little choice for one who abhors both. The real difference is that in many neighborhoods you can more or less get away from the specialized noises in London, but you never can do this in New York. You hear people saying that in these refuges the London noise is mellowed to a soft pour of sound, like the steady fall of a cataract, which effectively is silence; but that is not accurate. The noise is broken and crushed in a huge rumble without a specialized sound, except when, after midnight, the headlong clatter of a cab-horse distinguishes itself from the prevailing bulk. But the New York noise is never broken and crushed into a rumble; it bristles with specific accents, night and day, which agonizingly assort themselves one from another, and there is no nook or corner where you can be safe from them, as you can measurably be in London.

London is, if anything, rather more infested than New York with motors, as the English more simply and briefly call automobiles. The perspective is seldom free of them, and from time to time the air is tainted with their breath, which is now one of the most characteristic stenches of civilization. They share equally with other vehicles the drives in the parks, though their speed is tempered there to the prevalent pace. They add to the general noise the shuddering bursts of their swift percussions, and make the soul shrink from a forecast of what the aeroplane may be when it shall come hurtling overhead with some peculiar screech as yet unimagined. The motor plays an even more prominent part in the country than in London, especially in those remnants of time which the English call weekends, and which stretch from Friday afternoon to the next Monday morning. It is within these limits that people are ordinarily "asked down," and as the host usually lives from five to ten miles from the nearest station, the guest is met there by a motor which hurls him over the intervening ground at the speed of the train he has just left. The motor is still the rich man's pleasure, as the week-end is his holiday; and it will be long before the one will be the poor man's use, or the other his leisure. For the present he must content himself, in England, at least, with his own legs, and with the bank-holiday which now comes so often as to be dreaded by his betters when it lets him loose upon their travel and sojourn in excursional multitude. This is not likely ever to come under question of affecting the London season, as one heard the week-end accused of doing. It was theorized that people went out of town so much, in order to be at home in the country for their friends, that with two afternoons and three nights lost to the festivities of London, the season was sensibly if not vitally affected. But that was in the early weeks of it. As it grew and prospered through the latter half of June and the whole of July, the week-end, as an inimical factor, was no longer mentioned. It even began to be recognized as an essential element of the season. Like the king's visits to Denmark, to Ireland, to Germany, it really served to intensify the season.

At this point, I find it no longer possible to continue celebrating that great moment in the social life of a vast empire without accusing myself of triviality and hypocrisy. I have become aware that I really care nothing about it, and know almost as little. I fancy that with most English people who have passed the heyday of their youth, perhaps without having drunk deeply, or at all, of the delirious fountain of fashion, it is much the same. The purpose that the season clearly serves is annually gathering into the capital great numbers of the people best worth meeting from all parts of the world-wide English dominion, with many aliens of distinction, not counting Americans, who are held a kind of middle species by the natives. It is a time of perpetual breakfasts, lunches, teas, and dinners, receptions, concerts, and for those who can bear it, balls till the day of twenty-four hours' pleasure begins again, with the early rites of Rotten Row. Those who have a superfluity of invitations go on at night from one house to another till they fall lifeless into bed at their own. One may fancy, if one likes, that they show the effects of their pleasure the next day, that many a soft cheek pales its English rose under the flapping panama hats among the riders in the Park, and that, lively as they still are, they tend rather to be phantoms of delight. But perhaps this is not so. What is certain is that for those who do not abuse the season it is a time of fine as well as high enjoyment, when the alien, or the middle species, if he is known, or even tolerably imagined, may taste a cup of social kindness, of hospitality, deeper if not richer than any in the world. I do not say that one of the middle species will find in it the delicate, the wild, the piquant flavors of certain remembered cups of kindness at home; and I should not say this even if it were true; but he will be an ungrateful and ungracious guest if he criticises. He will more wisely and justly accuse himself of having lost his earlier zest, if he does not come away always thinking, "What interesting people I have met!"

William Dean Howells