British rule. Somehow they brought the sense of this home to the beholder, as none of the monuments or memorials of England's imperial glory had done, and then, having fulfilled their office, lost themselves in the crowd.

[ocr errors]





HE 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 midafternoon, 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 those of 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


« VorigeDoorgaan »