Authors: Norman Collins
Children of the Archbishop
Audrey and Patrick
And he who gives a child a home
Builds palaces in Kingdom come
And she who gives a baby birth
Brings Saviour Christ again to Earth
The Everlasting Mercy
There are too many of them. Too many. Too various. And, in their separate and divergent ways, all too supremely important.
Take just one bus-load, for example. An ordinary No. 14, type S, plying somewhere between Hornsey and Roehampton. It isn't even full, this particular bus. But, for all that, it's crowded. Packed solid. Overflowing.
Start anywhere you like. Right up in front, for instance, with the driver. His name's Sid Harris. He's been driving buses for nearly ten years. Ever since 1910, in fact. Even during the warâthe Great War, that isâhe was still hard at it. And, when he came out, he was a full Corporal in Army Transport. He still talks a lot about those days. It was the crown of his life that fine September morning in 1914 sitting behind a slung tarpaulin wind-screenâthey were the old Bâtype buses in those daysâdriving forty-eight of Sir John French's menâthirty-two inside, twelve standingâto meet General Hindenburg's army just south of Arras. Naturally it was the peak, you will say. It was history in the making, raw stuff of empires, and all that. But that wasn't the way Sid saw it. It was the behaviour of his bus that impressed himâthe way the engine boiled over but the old thing still chugged along for another thirty miles or so before seizing up. He's mad about buses, is Sid.
And not only about buses, either. He's got hold of the extraordinary notion that someone is going to die and leave him a fortune. It's a good enough idea in its way, only somehow it hasn't yet got round to the other person. The dim benefactor apparently knows nothing of it. Not that this makes Sid doubt the truth of it. Only last night as he was getting into bed he woke his wife up specially to mention it. “Not long now, Vi,” he told her in the kind of voice that he always used when he was talking about his legacy. “You wait and see. Just you wait. May be there in the morning.”
In short, poor old Sid's practically barmy about legacies by now. Barmy but, in a way, happy too. Happy from sheer, unrealised expectation.
Far happier than his conductor, Edward Musk. And that's funny when you come to think of it because Edward Musk actually married money. When he took on Andrew McInerney's widow she was worth every penny of four hundred pounds. And Edward Musk got all of it. But he also got Mrs. Mclnerney. In consequence, when he isn't actually taking fares, he spends his time washing up; carrying trays; cooking little things in saucepans; opening the window; putting the cat out; letting it in again; turning the mattress; going round to the Public Library; buying little bunches of flowers; and generally trying to be as kind, loving, patient and thoughtful as one should be with an invalid. For Mrs. Musk is nowadays completely bedridden. It is something internal, something incurable. What's more, she's gone all religious. And Edward Musk, with the four hundred still untouched in the bank, and nothing to show for it except tracts and missionary magazines and holy pictures, is often so fed up that he wishes that he could do something to speed up Nature.
Not that he ever will. He's far too quiet and timid and spiritless for that kind of thing, is Edward Musk. It's simply that he'd like to. And what makes it all so queer when you come to think of it is that, if only he had known, he might have been able to pick up a hint or two just now from a twopenny-fare. But how was he to guess that the twopenny, Warren Street to Brompton Road, was a wife-poisoner? That even now the dark stranger, with all the deep cunning of the murderer, is on his way to buy another bottle of Emmott's Arsenical Insect Spray from a chemist in order to dispose of Number Two?
The other passengers aren't all so sensational as that one. Poisoners are special. But in their own ways the others are interesting, too.
There's the little faded, frightened-looking spinster in the second seat. She's a music mistress and she's just been giving a private lesson to the practically tone-deaf daughter of a family grocer in Clerkenwell. Half a crown for the hour is what she got for it. And how is she going to spend her money? Sheet music? Oratorios? A new case for her second-hand, two-guinea violin? Not a bit of it. She's saving up for a steamship ticket to Australia. Her brother's wife died just over a year ago. And ever since then the little music mistress has seen herself at his side, a big, motherly creature in a
vast new world; a heaven-sent, full-bosomed auntie bringing up her four little nephews and three little nieces. She has only got Â£7 10S. so far towards the ticket, so she hasn't told her brother anything about it yet. But she's in earnest all right. And because she's cut her personal expenses down to the bare minimum and is living on about twopence-farthing a week, the nervous flicker of the eye-lids which was so bad when she was a child has come back again. At times she can't even see enough to read the headlines, let alone her music. And she isn't sleeping so well because of the nervous strain and excitement. That's why she's so jumpy that she can't bear to have people touch her. She nearly screamed out just now when she felt Edward Musk thrusting the change into her hand.
There's nothing like that about the man opposite. He's in a state of positively splendid equilibrium. He wears his ticket stuck into his hat-band and has thick, smooth lips, like slices of orange-peel. Through them, he whistles snatches of recent song-hits. His suit is brown with a broad white stripe in it, and his boots have cloth uppers. In his tie is a five-carat diamond. Or white sapphire. Or zircon. Or glass. Whatever it is, it's five-carat and defiant. When he fingers itâwhich he does constantlyâit looks strange somehow, because his fingernails are so short and broken. But that comes from carrying his bag. He's a commercial traveller, and because he's in the fancy-goods lineâpocket-mirrors and manicure sets and that kind of thingâthe contents are full of points and edges. He's fifty-two. His name is Solly Green. He's got forty-five pounds in fivers strapped round his waist. There are two boa-constrictors tattooed across his middle. His wife hasn't seen him for seven years, and she hopes that she never sees him again.
He's living at the moment with a girl called Daisy. She's nearly twelve years his junior and calls him Daddyâonly of course there aren't any children. Not by her at least. And that's a pity. Because perhaps a pair of little pattering feet would help to keep them together. But only perhaps. There were three pairs of little patterers all at once, remember, in his real home. And that didn't help. Quite the contrary, in fact. But it would be hard to find a formula for keeping Solly Green chained permanently to any woman. And poor Daisy, a ghost-designate already, is on her way out to join all the other ghosts in Solly's past, poor Olive, poor Pearl, poor Elsie, poor Mabel, poor Doris and poor all the rest of them. In the meantime, Solly is still whistling. And he can afford to. He is now representing a powder puff with a small, pink china
doll in the centre for a handle. The doll is nude, and its tiny hands cover up its embarrassed eyes most appealingly. It's all the rage with the trade, that powder-puffâthough only with a certain class of customer, of course.
There's a very different kind of man beside him. A nice, neat young man with flat, fair hair and a closely trimmed moustache and a weak, receding chin. He's reading a book entitled
Heroes of Peace
. But he's really thinking about his fiancÃ©e, Miss Mills. They're going to be married next month and they've found a house in Stroud Green, within a stone's throw of the water-works. Miss Mills is a pale, pretty little thing of twenty-two, and she is looking forward ever so. Thank goodness that she doesn't know what is coming to her. Doesn't know that, by Christmas, Haroldâit's still less than six months since she first called him by his nameâwill be dead and in his coffin with the wreaths and crosses piled whitely on top. It's only a hundred and sixteen days to Christmas. And on December 21st, this brand-new husband of hers is due to go under a District train at the Mansion House in an unaccountable fainting fit following on a nasty bout of influenza. By thenâand this is the sad partâthe pale, pretty thing his wife will be paler than ever but not half so pretty. She'll be feeling sick most of the time because there's a baby on the way. But in the meantime Harold, of course, knows nothing of all the misery he is bringing to Miss Mills. Contented and engrossed, he holds out his penny to Edward Musk. He is reading about Madame Curie and thinking about Miss Mills.
On the seat behind him is an elderly woman in black, obviously a grandmother. She is holding the hand of a solemn, preoccupied little girl. The solemn little girl sits bolt upright, her eyes fixed hard on space, her small mouth drawn into a thin, firm line. And there is something of the same fixity, the same preoccupation in the face of the grandmother. They sit there, the old woman and the little girl, holding hands and not speaking. They've been like this for the last five minutes and it is obviously some important, private silence that they're sharing. Then the little girl suddenly wrinkles up her nose and, as she does so, a tear runs down her cheek. Because the tear tickles, she puts out her tongue to intercept it. It is the tip of the pink tongue that the elderly woman notices. And when she sees what is happening she squeezes the child's hand harder.