THE ENGINE emitted a long sigh rather like an elderly lady loosening her corset and enveloped everything and everyone in a sulphurous pall of smoke and steam. It swirled along the platform and upwards to be trapped beneath the station roof. The smell took me back to Mary Newling’s kitchen where, as a small child, I’d been given the task of peeling hard-boiled eggs.
At unexpected intervals the smoke veil parted and a figure emerged briefly before disappearing and being replaced with another in a flickering lantern show. Here was a woman with a large bag in one hand and, with the other, towing a small boy in a sailor suit. As they vanished, in another spot appeared a man in jacket and trousers of a loud check pattern with his hat at a rakish angle. I must have appeared to his view as suddenly as he to mine. He gave me a sharp, predatory look and I just had time, before the smoke curtain was drawn over him again, to see the look turn to one of dismissal.
‘Come along, Lizzie Martin!’ I told myself briskly. ‘You’re neither pretty enough nor well-dressed enough to need worry you’ll be troubled.’
All the same, it bruised my vanity to be dismissed so quickly.
The smoke was thinning rapidly now and the next figure to appear before me wore, to my great relief, the uniform of a porter.
A small, wiry man of uncertain age, he grinned at me and tapped his cap in a gesture meant to signal respect, but which unfortunately looked much like the conspiratorial tapping of the brow to suggest simple-mindedness in a third party.
‘Take your bag, miss?’
‘I’ve only the one,’ I apologised, ‘and a hatbox.’
But he was already reaching for them and I found myself setting off after him at a fair pace towards the barrier. My ticket was whisked from my hand by the grand-looking official on guard there and my escort and I arrived on the main concourse.
‘Being met, miss? Or need a cab?’The porter was peering up at me.
‘Oh, yes, a cab, but—’
Too late. ‘Follow me, then, miss. I’ll take you to the rank.’
Mrs Parry had written to me at length, regretting it would not be possible for anyone to meet me but giving detailed instructions as to what I should do on my arrival in the capital. I should entrust my belongings to a porter who must be (the next words were heavily underscored) an employee of the railway company and no other. If I handed over my bags to anyone else, I should not be surprised if I never saw them again. I had obeyed that instruction, at least.
I was well on my way to obey the second: to take a cab, selecting one drawn by a horse in good condition, and enquiring first of the driver as to the amount of the fare. I should have him bring me to her address by the most direct route. Cabmen were sometimes impertinent when dealing with single ladies and I must on no account encourage this.
A small band of ragged children appeared and ran alongside me, importuning me for pennies.
‘Go on, gerrahtovit!’
roared my porter with unexpected ferocity. As the band scattered, jeering at him, he added to me, ‘You want to watch out for them brats! Don’t never take out your purse in front of them.’
‘No, indeed not!’ I agreed breathlessly. I was a newcomer, clearly from the provinces, but I wasn’t stupid and we also had child thieves where I’d come from.
A new odour was added to that of smoke, coal ash, grease and unwashed humanity: horses. We had reached a rank of four-wheeled carriages of the type known as ‘growlers’ from the general racket made by their wheels.
‘More suitable for a lady on her own,’ confided my porter. ‘You don’t want to go hiring a hansom. Where do you wish to go, miss?’ And before I could answer, ‘Look sharp, there, Wally! Here’s a lady wants a cab.’
The cabman in question had been leaning against his horse’s rump, engaged in the leisurely eating of a pie. He now pushed the last of the crumbling pastry into his mouth and adopted an alert manner. It didn’t make him look any the less alarming. He was stocky and brawny and his features were so battered that it gave the impression he’d collided with a particularly solid object at some point in his life. Alone, I should have hesitated to approach him.
He saw my startled expression and addressed me. ‘You worried by this squashed mug of mine, miss?’ He pointed a stubby finger at his nose which was particularly crooked. ‘That comes of my illustrious career in the prize ring that does. Illustrious but brief, mind. It was a woman made me give it up. “Wally Slater,” she said. “It’s the prize ring or me.” Being young and foolish at the time,’ he added confidentially, ‘I took her and now she’s my ever-loving wife and I’m driving this cab for a living!’ He fell to chortling and slapping his sides. The horse gave a sardonic snort.
‘Never mind all that, Wally,’ my porter reproached him. Like the horse, he had probably heard this story innumerable times before. ‘Where do you want to go, miss?’
I gave him the address, Dorset Square, adding, ‘It’s in Marylebone.’
‘And very nice, too,’ observed the cabman, taking my bag from the porter.
‘How much?’ I asked quickly, mindful of my instructions.
He squinted at me, which made him look even more frightening, and named his fare. I caught the porter’s eye and he gave me an encouraging nod which I took to mean the price was a fair one. Or he might just have been in league with the cabbie. I had no way of knowing. They were obviously old acquaintances.
My suspicions were further aroused when the cabbie went on, ‘It might turn out sixpence extra, miss, if we have to go the long way round on account of all the carts.’
‘I want to go straight there!’ I said sternly.
‘Nah, you don’t understand, miss,’ said Mr Slater earnestly. ‘They’re clearing the site for the new station, see? Pulling down the houses and taking all the rubble away. It’s blocking the streets all around and giving us cabbies no end of trouble. Ain’t that right?’ he appealed to the porter.
The latter’s head bobbed like a nodding automaton. ‘’Sright, miss. The Midland Railway is going to get its own terminus, see, instead of sharing others? St Pancras it’ll be called. The railway company has bought up all the houses and turned out all the people as lived there, and now they’re pulling everything down and making it nice and flat. Why, even the church will have to go.’
‘They’re going to build that up again somewhere else, that’s what I heard,’ said the cabbie.
‘Are they going to build houses for people to live in somewhere else, that’s what I want to know,’ countered the porter.
‘It’s the graveyard,’ confided the cabbie with lugubrious relish, ‘as they reckon will give them trouble. They’ve tried digging under it by way of an hexperiment, but they keeps finding
, as I’ve heard.’
They bent their joint gaze upon me to make sure I appreciated this gruesome fact. It was, I fully realised, a means of putting a stop to my objections.
‘Very well,’ I said, attempting to sound businesslike. I pressed a coin into the porter’s hand and he gave me another of his peculiar salutes before scurrying away.
I just had time before allowing myself to be handed up (or rather, bundled into) the cab, to take a look at the horse. It seemed sound enough to my inexperienced eye, although had it been the most pitiful, overworked, broken-kneed nag on the streets of London, it would have been too late to quibble about it. We were off.
I have to admit I was curious to have my first sight of London and peered out as we rumbled and bounced along. I hoped too for a breath of fresher air as the inside of the growler smelled stale and sweaty although it was clean enough. But I soon decided against putting my face through the opened window. The noise was deafening and there was an alarming press of other vehicles around us heading this way and that, the drivers all shouting at one another to give way and watch out. There seemed only a notional respect for the requirement to keep to the left, most preferring to go straight down the middle of the road if they could, often to avoid a slow-moving omnibus drawn by its weary sweating horses. As for the other requirement, that cabs give way to private carriages, that too seemed honoured more in the breach than the observance.
All this was to say nothing of pedestrians who put life and limb at risk to dart between unforgiving wheels which at the least spattered them with mud and worse and would have bemired me had I been fool enough to put my head right out. Here and there crossing sweepers did their best to clear a path for the better dressed but most passers-by seemed resigned to the dirt. So I contented myself with observing from within as a bewildering parade of images flickered by, hardly glimpsed before gone.
With the pedestrians mingled sellers of every kind of small item from penny news-sheets to ribbons and matches while costermongers had set up stalls or parked barrows from which to
sell fruit and vegetables. A strong smell of fish which briefly invaded the cab suggested a woman seated by a large barrel was selling herrings. A more enticing smell came from a stall on which stood two large copper urns dispensing hot coffee.
We were passing the site of the new station, apparently. I could see little of it but its existence was represented in the numerous carts laden with debris mingling with the other traffic. A swirl of dust-laden air invaded the growler causing me to cough. I had been warned of the nuisance these carts were causing, but even if I hadn’t been, their lack of popularity was clear. Pedestrians expressed vehement frustration and cabmen hurled abuse as the creaking vehicles lumbered slowly along causing queues to form behind them. For my own part, I found these wagons and their loads singularly pathetic. Clinging to the heaps of broken bricks and shattered tiles were scraps of fabric which once had been a window curtain or a cheap carpet; occasionally a broken chair or a mangled piece of iron bedstead perched insecurely atop the lot. The remains of a straggling rose bush bore witness to some inhabitant’s desire to have a garden of a sort. Broken planks, door and window frames poked up skeletal fingers, as if they would climb out of their rubble tombs. We jolted abruptly to a halt and I wondered if we’d arrived.
Some telepathy was at work, as a small trap window flew open above my head and opposite. Wally Slater’s eyes peered through it down at me. ‘Just another cart, miss. There’s a bobby stopping us to let it through.’
‘Peeler, miss, a hofficer of the law, what has made it his business to take charge. They’re very good at doing that, the police, taking charge and interfering in an honest citizen’s daily business,’ concluded the cabman resentfully.
Now I did venture to put my head out of the window to see what was so different about this cart that the law had stepped in to aid its progress. A fresh cloud of dust assailed my nostrils and
I sneezed. I was about to pull my head back inside when the new vehicle appeared approaching from a turning to our right. It was another wagon, much like those carrying rubble, but this carried only a single mysterious object covered by a tarpaulin. Unlike the whistling and catcalls which had greeted the other carts, a curious, uneasy silence fell as this one rumbled into view. Nearby an oldish man pulled off his cap.
The cab rocked and I saw that my driver had clambered down from his perch and approached a burly man in workman’s clothes whom he appeared to know. They began a whispered conversation.
‘Is it an accident?’ I called out.
They both turned towards me. The workman opened his mouth but the cabman answered quickly, ‘Nothing to worry you, miss.’
‘But it is a dead body they are transporting there, is it not?’ I persisted. ‘Has there been some kind of fatal accident where they are working at the site of the new terminus?’ I remembered then that some of the excavations being carried out involved a graveyard. ‘Or is it a coffin from the churchyard?’
Walter Slater, ex-prizefighter, was looking at me in a way both shocked and disapproving. Whether he thought me bluntly practical or morbidly fascinated, either way it wasn’t in his view how respectable young ladies should behave in the face of death. A little more distress was called for. However, I was never one for wailing and fainting. Nevertheless, perhaps he deserved an explanation.
‘I am a doctor’s daughter,’ I told him. ‘And my father was often called to accidents at the—’
Here I broke off. I had been going to say ‘at the mines’ but this was London, not Derbyshire, and what would these men know of coal mines?
So I completed my sentence, ‘At the request of the authorities.’
The cabbie said, ‘Yes, miss, I dare say.’ But I saw my lapse of taste was not to be overlooked.
Now, Lizzie! I told myself again severely. You must watch your tongue! This is London and provincial frankness probably isn’t the done thing. If you scandalise even this cabbie, what dreadful social gaffes do you risk making with the more sensitive class of person?
The workman, however, seemed amused by the exchange. ‘Bless you, miss,’ he said cheerfully. ‘This ain’t an old one, this is a fresh one.’
Slater growled at him to hold his tongue, but as I was already marked down by Wally as a person given to improper interest in the event, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.