The Omnibus by Arthur Quiller-Couch

All that follows was spoken in a small tavern, a stone’s throw from Cheapside, the day before I left London. It was spoken in a dull voice, across a greasy table-cloth, and amid an atmosphere so thick with the reek of cooking that one longed to change it for the torrid street again, to broil in an ampler furnace. Old Tom Pickford spoke it, who has been a clerk for fifty-two years in Tweedy’s East India warehouse, and in all that time has never been out of London, but when he takes a holiday spends it in hanging about Tweedy’s, and observing that unlovely place of business from the outside. The dust, if not the iron, of Tweedy’s has entered into his soul; and Tweedy’s young men know him as “the Mastodon.” He is a thin, bald septuagenarian, with sloping shoulders, and a habit of regarding the pavement when he walks, so that he seems to steer his way by instinct rather than sight. In general he keeps silence while eating his chop; and on this occasion there was something unnatural in his utterance, a divorce of manner between the speaker and his words, such as one would expect in a sibyl disclaiming under stress of the god. I fancied it had something to do with a black necktie that he wore instead of the blue bird’s-eye cravat familiar to Tweedy’s, and with his extraordinary conduct in refusing to-day the chop that the waiter brought, and limiting his lunch to cheese and lettuce.

Having pulled the lettuce to pieces, he pushed himself back a little from the table, looked over his spectacles at me, then at the table-cloth, and began in a dreamy voice:

“Old Gabriel is dead. I heard the news at the office this morning, and went out and bought a black tie. I am the oldest man in Tweedy’s now—older by six years than Sam Collins, who comes next; so there is no mistake about it. Sam is looking for the place; I saw it in his eye when he told me, and I expect he’ll get it. But I’m the oldest clerk in Tweedy’s. Only God Almighty can alter that, and it’s very satisfactory to me. I don’t care about the money. Sam Collins will be stuck up over it, like enough; but he’ll never write a hand like Gabriel’s, not if he lives to be a hundred; and he knows it, and knows I’ll be there to remind him of it. Gabriel’s was a beautiful fist—so small, too, if he chose. Why, once, in his spare hours, he wrote out all the Psalms, with the headings, on one side of a folio sheet, and had it framed and hung up in his parlour, out at Shepherd’s Bush. He died in the night—oh yes, quite easily. He was down at the office all yesterday, and spoke to me as brisk as a bird. They found him dead in his bed this morning.

“I seem cut up about it? Well, not exactly. Ah, you noticed that I refused my chop to-day. Bless your soul, that’s not on Gabriel’s account. I am well on in years, and I suppose it would be natural of me to pity old men, and expect pity. But I can’t; no, it’s only the young that I pity. If you must know, I didn’t take the chop to-day because I haven’t the money in my pocket to pay for it. You see, there was this black tie that I gave eighteenpence for; but something else happened this morning that I’ll tell you about.

“I came down in a ‘bus, as usual. You remember what muggy weather it was up to ten o’clock—though you wouldn’t think it, to feel the heat now. Well, the ‘bus was packed, inside and out. At least, there was just room for one more inside when we pulled up by Charing Cross, and there he got in—a boy with a stick and a bundle in a blue handkerchief.

“He wasn’t more than thirteen; bound for the docks, you could tell at a glance; and by the way he looked about you could tell as easily that in stepping outside Charing Cross station he’d set foot on London stones for the first time. God knows how it struck him—the slush and drizzle, the ugly shop-fronts, the horses slipping in the brown mud, the crowd on the pavement pushing him this side and that. The poor little chap was standing in the middle of it with dazed eyes, like a hare’s, when the ‘bus pulled up. His eyelids were pink and swollen; but he wasn’t crying, though he wanted to. Instead, he gave a gulp as he came on board with stick and bundle, and tried to look brave as a lion.

“I’d have given worlds to speak to him, but I couldn’t. On my word, sir, I should have cried. It wasn’t so much the little chap’s look. But to the knot of his bundle there was tied a bunch of cottage flowers,—sweet-williams, boy’s-love, and a rose or two,—and the sight and smell of them in that stuffy omnibus were like tears on thirsty eyelids. It’s the young that I pity, sir. For Gabriel, in his bed up at Shepherd’s Bush, there’s no more to be said, as far as I can see; and as for me, I’m the oldest clerk in Tweedy’s, which is very satisfactory. It’s the young faces, set toward the road along which we have travelled, that trouble me. Sometimes, sir, I lie awake in my lodgings and listen, and the whole of this London seems filled with the sound of children’s feet running, and I can sob aloud. You may say that it is only selfishness, and what I really pity is my own boyhood. I dare say you’re right. It’s certain that, as I kept glancing at the boy and his sea kit and his bunch of flowers, my mind went back to the January morning, sixty-five years back, when the coach took me off for the first time from the village where I was born to a London charity-school. I was worse off than the boy in the omnibus, for I had just lost father and mother. Yet it was the sticks and stones and flower-beds that I mostly thought of. I went round and said good-bye to the lilacs, and told them to be in flower by the time I came back. I said to the rose-bush, ‘You must be as high as my window next May; you know you only missed it by three inches last summer.’ Then I went to the cow-house, and kissed the cows, one by one. They were to be sold by auction the very next week, but I guessed nothing of it, and ordered them not to forget me. And last I looked at the swallows’ nests under the thatch,—the last year’s nests,—and told myself that they would be filled again when I returned. I remembered this, and how I stretched out my hands to the place from the coach-top; and how at Reading, where we stopped, I spent the two shillings that I possessed in a cocoanut and a bright clasp-knife; and how, when I opened it, the nut was sour; and how I cried myself to sleep, and woke in London.

“The young men in Tweedy’s, though they respect my long standing there, make fun of me at times because I never take a holiday in the country. Why, sir, I dare not. I should wander back to my old village, and—Well, I know how it would be then. I should find it smaller and meaner; I should search about for the flowers and nests, and listen for the music that I knew sixty-five years ago, and remember; and they would not be discoverable. Also every face would stare at me, for all the faces I know are dead. Then I should think I had missed my way and come to the wrong place; or (worse) that no such spot ever existed, and I have been cheating myself all these years; that, in fact, I was mad all the while, and have no stable reason for existing—I, the oldest clerk in Tweedy’s! To be sure, there would be my parents’ headstones in the churchyard. But what are they, if the churchyard itself is changed?

“As it is, with three hundred pounds per annum, and enough laid by to keep him, if I fail, an old bachelor has no reason to grumble. But the sight of that little chap’s nosegay, and the thought of the mother who tied it there, made my heart swell as I fancy the earth must swell when rain is coming. His eyes filled once, and he brushed them under the pretence of pulling his cap forward, and stole a glance round to see if any one had noticed him. The other passengers were busy with their own thoughts, and I pretended to stare out of the window opposite; but there was the drop, sure enough, on his hand as he laid it on his lap again.

“He was bound for the docks, and thence for the open sea, and I, that was bound for Tweedy’s only, had to get out at the top of Cheapside. I know the ‘bus conductor,—a very honest man,—and, in getting out, I slipped half a crown into his hand to give to the boy, with my blessing, at his journey’s end. When I picture his face, sir, I wish I had made it five shillings, and gone without a new tie and dinner altogether.”

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