Confessions Of An Exiled Bus
( Originally Published 1918 )
AFTER all, it was a hoary-haired scoundrel of a bus; a very reprobate of a bus; an envious, evil-thinking, ill-conditioned, flagrantly thieving, knavish blackguard of a bus. Under no circumstances am I proud of the acquaintance. But then, in extenuation, be it said that it was never anything but an acquaintance of Shadow-Land, conjured up, perhaps, by a material repast that had been palatable and indigestible.
Have you read Alphonse Daudet's delightful " Tartarin of Tarascon "? Are you acquainted with the " baobab villa," and the elusive Montenegrin Prince, who had spent three years in Tarascon, but who never went out, and who decamped with Tartarin's well-filled wallet; and the jaundiced Costlecalde, and the embarrassingly affectionate camel, and the blind lion from the hide of which grew the great man's subsequent fame, and all the other whimsical creations of the novelist's pleasant fancy? The book is one of my favourite books, one of the tomes that are taken to bed to pave the way to restful, happy slumber. Perhaps that night it had been the last volume to be tossed aside before turning out the light, for as I slept, to use the words of the tinker of Bedford, I dreamed a dream.
There was a consciousness of being jolted about abominably in a ramshackle vehicle. The surroundings were vague, as they always are in dreams. Low hills and sandy waste and sparse shrubs. Where was it, the " Great Desert," or some stretch in South America or in Mexico? In my dream I was dozing, trying to forget the painful bumping and twisting. A familiar voice brought me to with a sudden start.
" Say! Listen! Hey you! Wake up, can't you? " Far off as the voice seemed at first, there was a delicious, home-sickness-provoking, nasal twang to the accents.
Who are you? " I asked sleepily.
" Who am I? Now that is a question. Don't you recognize me? Why I am one of the old Fifth Avenue buses that used to run from Washington Square up to Fifty-ninth Street. That's who I am."
" But why are you here? " I stammered. " What brought you to this strange corner of the world? "
" Believe me," the spluttering voice replied, " I am not here of my own will. You can bet your tintype on that, Mr. Washington Arch, or Mr. Hoffman House Bar, or Mr. Flatiron Building."
" Your mode of address is somewhat obsolete," I ventured. " Changes have taken place."
" Yes, I know. You want to be strictly up-to-date, like all the rest of the New Yorkers. As you say, changes have taken place. That is our unfortunate story. We were discarded, tossed aside, just as soon as they found that they could replace us by those evil-smelling, noise-making, elongated, double-decked children of the devil. Without a word, without a regret, they packed us off. Some of us were sent to the end of Long Island, some to Florida to haul crackers and northern tourists, some, like myself, to the utter-most ends of the earth. But the worst fate was that of those who stayed. They were sold to a department store, and kept to run between its door and a Third Avenue El. station, to be packed to bursting with fat women and squalling children from the Bronx. Think of their degradation! Think of their feelings when they reflect upon the days of past glory!
" It was hard," the confidences continued, " but I do not complain. We were growing old, no doubt of that. We were of yesterday, and you know the old saying of the ring that youth must be served. Even John L. learned that, and before him, Joe Coburn and Paddy Ryan. Then Jim Corbett learned it too, and freckled " Bob " Fitzsimmons, and now there is a young fellow named Jim Jeffries who perhaps will find it out in his turn. You see, in my youth I was something of a patron of sport. I knew them all, and they are all down and out, and I am down and out." There was a plaintive whine in the spluttering, squeaky voice.
" We knew that our hour was passing. We read the story in the averted eyes of those who it earlier days we had regarded as our fast friends, or we heard it in the outspoken, contemptuous remarks of those who had no regard whatever for our feelings. To strangers, above all, were we objects of derision. Throaty, mid-western voices made disparaging comparison reflecting, not only on us, but on our fair city. Visiting Englishmen surveyed us through monocles and talked of the buses of the Strand and Regent Street. There was a French artist, a Baron Somebody-or-other, who afterwards wrote a book called ` New York as I Have Seen It.' He had married an American girl, the daughter of a comedian at whose clever whimsicalities my passengers used to laugh uproariously. I had carried him often—that actor, and knew him as one of the most genial and companionable of men. One day the Frenchman, accompanied by his father-in-law, stopped me at a street corner down near Washington Square, climbed up beside my driver, and rode to the end of the route. Here, thought I, is where I get a little appreciation. Here is a critic from the older civilization, a man with a proper reverence for the past, who can look beyond the freshness of varnish. I have a right to expect something in the nature of consideration from him. Bah! All he said was: ` Among the splendid carriages and the high-priced automobiles, perhaps to prove that we are in a land of freedom, the black, dirty, wretched omnibuses ply from one end of the Avenue to the other.' Honest now, wouldn't it jar you?
" I called you Mr. Washington Arch just now. I was wrong," the accents were now no longer plaintive, but raucous and sneering. If I had doubted before, there was now no questioning the old rascal's claim to recognition as a fellow New Yorker. " But I was wrong. You are Mr. Piker from Uptown Somewhere. Had you been Mr. Arch, you would have recognized me as soon as I did you. We real ones do not forget. But I have your number. Would you like me to tell you a few things? Oh, I have your dossier, all right. Let me see. The first time I carried you you were an infant howling abominably. You were lifted in somewhere in the ` Fifties,' and three blocks farther down a fat old man got out, muttering, ` Why don't they keep those brats off the stages ! ' The next time you were still howling. You were about six, and you had been taken to the old Booth Theatre at the corner of Twenty-third Street and Sixth Avenue, and had seen ` Little Red Riding Hood,' and when the wolf said, ` All the better to eat you with, my dear,' you burst into a frightened bawl, and had to be hurried out. Soon after I saw you on a balcony near the Square watching a political pro-cession go by. Then there were a few years that I missed you, and then a period when I saw you often. I had grown rather to like you, until one Thanksgiving Day morning. You snubbed me direct. There were buses covered with coloured bunting in front of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. You climbed on one. Again you were howling, this time methodically, deliberately, in chorus with a number of other young lunatics. I tried my best to be friendly, but not a look would you give me. You were too busy shouting and waving a flag. Say, do you want any more of those little personal reminiscences? "
I did not. I mumbled a few words of lame apology, pleading the thoughtlessness of youth. The excuses were apparently taken in the proper spirit, for again the voice was tearful.
" Ah, but those were the good old days ! Out here I love to think of them and to recall my youth. I am battered now, and my joints creak.
But once I was all fresh paint and varnish, one of the . aristocrats of city travel. How I used to look down upon the bob-tailed cars at the cross-town streets. Besides I was not merely one of the splendid Old Guard, I was . the, bus—the one of which they used to tell the famous story. Others may claim the distinction, but they are impostors, sir, rank impostors. I was the bus. What! You don't mean to say that you have never heard it? "
Humbly I acknowledged my ignorance, and listened to a tale that, I was assured, had once been told in every club corner and over every dinner table on the Avenue.
" It was nine o'clock of a blustery March night. . Mulligan was not my driver on the trip, but Casey, who had been imbibing rather freely at the corner place of refreshment during the wait. Empty we left the starting point under the 'L. curve on South Fifth Avenue. Empty we crossed the Square. At the Eighth Street corner, in front of the Brevoort, we stopped. A gentleman and his wife entered. We proceeded. At Nineteenth Street we were again hailed. Three young men were standing at the curb. The one in the middle had evidently been drinking, for his head was drooping, and he was leaning heavily upon his companions. He was helped in and placed far forward, just under the coin box. Casey pulled the strap attached to his leg, closing the door, and we moved on, across Madison Square, past St. Leo's, up the slope of Murray Hill. At Thirty-seventh Street there was a tug at the strap, and one of the young men said a curt ` good-night' and alighted. We passed the old Reservoir, crossed Forty-second Street. Two blocks more and the second of the young men signalled. ` Good-night, Dick ! ' he said and was gone. As we resumed the journey the gentleman who with his wife had climbed aboard at Eighth Street noticed that the head of the third young man, the one apparently intoxicated, was sinking lower and lower. Thinking that he might be carried beyond his destination he stepped forward and touched his arm. ` We are passing Fifty-third Street,' he said. There was no response. He shook the shoulder and repeated the information. Suddenly he turned to his wife. ` We will get out,' he said quickly. ` But, George ' she began. ` We will get out,' he repeated, pulling the strap. As they stood under the lamp light at the corner the wife continued her protests. ` But there were four more blocks to go.' ` My dear,' said the husband, ` that young man's throat was cut from ear to earl ' "
" You are," I remarked crossly, " a most infernal old liar."
" Maybe, maybe," was the wheezy response,
" But I haven't said that it was true, have I? Nor again have I said that it wasn't. Strange things have happened on the Avenue. There have been nights of violence. Sometimes, on late trips, my nerves have jumped at the sound of some terrified cry. Often it has come from one of the most respectable of houses. Again, in broad daylight, I have seen startled faces pressed against upper windows. I have seen hands drop-ping notes to the pavement. Once in a while a passer-by has picked up one of those notes. But as a rule they were caught by the wind and whisked away. What was in those notes? That's what I want to know. Again, when it was dark, there has been the sound of running feet, and a panting man has jumped from the roadway to my rear step while we were in motion. The next morning there were stains on my cushions—the stains left by bloody hands. They never could wash them out. They never could wash them out."
There was a lurch as a wheel bumped down into a hollow in the rough road, and the exile fell to groaning and blaspheming.
" Ah, my rheumatic joints; my poor old bones! This climate ! "
So the old Fifth Avenue bus complained of the rheumatism. I recalled that the diligence that carried. M. Tartarin across the Algerian desert also gave vent to many " Ai's " about aching joints and sudden twinges. What creatures of imitation we are, to be sure !
" But it is the loss of old friends that hurts the most," so the confidences went on. " There was Mulligan, for example, of whom I was speaking just now he of the long coat and the dented brown derby hat. Far up, near the end of the line, there was an old one-story frame roadhouse, that had been there in my father's time, in my grandfather's time, in my great-grandfather's time. Mulligan knew it well, and many the time, when he came out of it, he was swaying slightly, and had to pull himself up to the box by means of the seat rails. Then there were anxious moments, as we raced over the cobble-stones, and my wheels scraped other wheels to the right and left. In those days there was a strap, one end of which was attached to the driver's boot, and the other end to the door at the rear. When a passenger wished to alight he pulled the strap and the driver released his hold. Sometimes the young bucks—we called them dudes in those days—inside had been dining well, and were hunting for mischief. Two or three of them would grab the strap and pull with all their strength. My sides are creaky now, but they ache with laughing when I recall how Mulligan used to swear. Some-times the strap gave and sometimes the driver'leg was twisted half off. Was that the origin of the expression ` pulling his leg'? I wonder! The fare was dropped into the box up in front. At first the driver was the one who made the change. Later the change was handed out in sealed paper envelopes. Mulligan was of the early days. What became of him? Oh, he went into politics.
" I'll tell you what you can do for me," the exile went on. Some day, when you are back in the old town just drop into the Hoffman House bar and take a drink for me, all the time looking up at the pictures of the lovely ladies about to go in bathing in a beautiful brook in the woods."
" Stop ! " said I, sternly. The piratical old plagiarist of a vehicle was about to begin filching from another source. There had been a guilty squeak in the voice that had roused my suspicions. " No doubt," I said, with pointed sarcasm, " among the many passengers you carried at various times was the late Mr. Richard Harding Davis. He was a literary man of parts, and wrote, among other books, a charming little story called ` The Exiles.' "
" What! Is he d ? I mean I never heard of the gent," was the brazen response. " There was a Davis, now, a Sebastian Davis, I think the name was, in the hair-oil business, if I am not mistaken. A little fellow, with mutton-chop side whiskers. But as I was saying, I don't know anything better than Fifth Avenue at Madison Square of a summer's night, with the hobos dozing already on the park benches, and people hanging round the entrance of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and the men lined up three deep at the Hoffman bar, and the girls walking by on their way to dance the minuet at the Haymarket up at Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street. I said the minuet. Do you get me?" There was an evil chuckle. " Across the Square Diana is twinkling up there in the sky, and beneath, in the Garden, they are pulling off a middle-weight bout to a decision. Just round the corner, in the Madison Square Theatre, you can hear the clapping. The play is Hoyt's ` A Trip to Chinatown."
" I see," said I, for both the theft of ideas and the pretence of innocence were too flagrant; " that your memories are of what we lovingly called ` the golden,' and detractors called the ` yellow ' nineties. We were both young once."
But the assumption of friendliness seemed only to irritate.
" The nineties ! Why, I was an old man in the nineties ! An old, old man ! I wasn't a youngster in the eighties, or the seventies, for that matter. There's another one of the old Avenue buses on this line. No. 27. He says he is older than I am. He's a liar. Sometimes I think I am the oldest bus in all the world, and that I ought to be enjoying myself in the Smithsonian, instead of dragging out my existence bumping over boulders and prairie grass.
" Come to think of it," the old bus went on meditatively, " the Smithsonian does not appeal to me after all. I think that I would be better pleased in a corner of the Third Degree room down at Number 300 Mulberry Street, or in the Chamber of Horrors at the Eden Musee. For, as you may have noticed, I am partial to crime. It is the result of my bringing up. It is the excitement of my early days that I miss most now. When I first came out here it was with a feeling of pleased expectancy. I anticipated a daily hold-up. I had visions of stage robbers in cambric masks, and running gun fights, and horses in frightened flight, and my driver stricken to the heart and tumbling from his seat. But it is a degenerate and tame world out here. Give me little old New York."
" But the statistics " I began.
" You do not know one-quarter. The police do not know one-half. But I know. You have read what the papers have printed, or what some re-tired Inspector has seen fit to tell in his Memoirs. You did not pass, night after night, the sinister house of the woman whose open boast was that, if she wished to, she could take half the roofs off the Avenue. You did not know how real that terrible threat was, for you never saw the cloaked men issuing from its doors bearing their ghastly burdens. You have heard of the Burdell murder but you never knew the real solution. You have read of the Nathan murder at the corner of the Avenue and Twenty-third Street. But you did not hear, as I heard, that piercing wail, or see the shaking figure that climbed on my rear step at Twenty-fourth Street and rode twenty blocks northward. A man once wrote an Australian story called ` The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.' My life had not one mystery but a score of mysteries. You think you know some-thing of Fifth Avenue. What do you know of the killing the Girl in Green, or of Colt and the William Street printer, the Suicides of No. X Washington Square, North, or The Enigma of the Fifteenth Street House, or of The Case of Giuseppe and the Italian Ambassador, which was hushed up by orders from Washington and Rome, or The Affair of the Titled Sexton, or The Madison Square Tower Episode? "
But I was growing weary of the voice of the old impostor.
" Ever hear of Conan Doyle? " I asked.
" Now come to think of it, a drummer from Altoona left a paper copy of one of his books the last trip."