It was a slow night and wet, not good for business after I had just dropped off my last passenger, but it couldn’t rain forever.
On a whim, which is the way it usually strikes me, and noticing the lateness of the hour, almost exactly midnight, I decided to take another turn around the Crescent driving at an exact speed of 20 kilometers an hour, the pace of a fast horse-drawn carriage of yesteryear, and on a course aiming exactly at the light, casting its sickly, sodium-yellow, bilious glare everywhere, and jutting out above the road where it turned hard to the left.
I concentrated, knowing from past experience what was going to happen, and feeling excited about it.
But let's go back a few steps and begin at the beginning, where I began to learn about this wonderful thing that I had discovered.
I should mention that I had done this several times before. Three times, before what promised to be a more interesting fourth encounter, as I had now learned how to exercise some control over what happened.
The very first time it had happened had been one hell of a surprise to me, but after I’d got over the shock, almost running off the road—forgetting about the turn—and plowing through the metal fencing and into the façade of the town house, I soon got my wits back in order.
Two seconds ago there had been no passenger, and now I had one, but I had not stopped to pick anyone up. Not there, and then, he was here, in the cab with me. I had a passenger beside me. Beside me, and not in the back seat as passengers usually were, so what the hell…? And who…?
He was a gentleman. I could guess that much by his manner of dress. Clothing of another time; late Victorian I would guess. He was carrying gloves to go with his top hat, and he had a light silver-headed walking stick that I believed might be a sword stick, He was breathing heavily as though he had been running and he seemed agitated, but not so agitated that he could not complain.
“Be careful you oaf! Are you always this reckless?”
“No, sir, sorry, sir.” What else could I say? I didn’t have a clue who he was or where he had come from, but I knew enough to tread carefully from past experience.
“Where to, sir?”
“Just go. And go quickly!” I wasn’t about to argue with him.
He seemed deeply pre-occupied, and often turned to look behind us.
That was when I noticed, as we passed under other street lights, that he had blood-spattered shoes and spats. Spats? And that the handkerchief he was using to wipe his hands, was also coming away bloody. He was dripping blood all over the floor of my cab, but he was not wounded that I could see, not to have been running as hard as he had.
He was talking under his breath to himself and muttering something about Mary Nichols, whoever she was. It could not have been a happy meeting considering how disturbed he was and the blood on him. The name rang a bell, but it meant nothing to me until later, but the blood made me nervous.
He noticed my interest, so I quickly averted my gaze.
“Take me to the river.” The hackles rose on the back of my neck, and I actually began to fear for my life, but could do nothing other than comply until I found how I might escape this predicament.
It was a quiet night, so there was no competing traffic. He noticeably jumped when a police whistle sounded not far behind us and where we’d just left.
We were in Whitechapel in East London, but how we had got there I did not know, as that was not where I had been driving just before I picked him up.
That urgent and loud police whistle was soon answered by others. They seemed to be closing in on us, and they shouldn’t have been; not on foot, and not the speed I was going by then, about a respectable 50 kph.
“Stop here and let me out.”
I did as he asked. Who was I to argue with a man with a sword stick who might turn violent at any minute and who showed all the signs of having been very violent not long before.
“Here." He looked into my eyes. "Say nothing if you value your life. Remember, I know who you are.” He took a business card out of the pocket on the dash. I was the one who usually passed those out, and he pressed a few gold sovereigns into my hand, opened the door, and was gone. And I mean gone. Disappeared into thin air. I didn’t believe it. My mouth dropped open. Should I test one with my teeth like those urchins in the films did? Gold sovereigns? Who carried those in this day and age? Everything was credit card and debit these days.
I thought I should maybe call after him and stop him if he was still somewhere within hearing. He’d been in such a rush he’d left his stick behind. Fortunately, I thought better about that rash impulse. There was blood on the seat where he had been sitting and a small cloth bundle, also bloody, as well as the handkerchief he had been wiping his hands upon. There was a monograph on one corner of it not obscured by blood. Who carried monographed handkerchiefs in this century? HRH, something or other. It was a start. I opened up his little bundle and out fell various bloody medical instruments, freshly used too by the looks of them: scalpels, forceps, and things I’d never seen before outside of a museum. The blood was fresh. The hair on the back of my head began to raise again, and I got out of that area like the proverbial bat.
Then I recollected what I had been thinking about when he had dropped in.
There’d been a program about the Whitechapel murders on the television the night before and I’d been thinking about that and Jack the Ripper.
Was that who had been in my cab, or had I been hallucinating?
I hadn’t dreamed up that sword stick, nor the sovereigns, nor the medical instruments. They were still there, on the seat.
I decided I was too tired to continue my usual shift, so I pocketed the gold coins, called it a day and went home to think about what had happened and to examine what he had left behind, in the safety of my own home. I had better be careful getting home. If I was stopped, and the police found any of this stuff on me, I’d be in a hell of a mess. They wouldn’t believe a single word I said. At least I'd touched nothing but the coins with my hands, but I'd be loath to give them up.
It took me two hours to clean up my cab, and a week to get over that shock, and I said nothing to anyone about any of it. Who would have believed me? I’m only a cab driver.
That had been my first time.
I went over it in my mind many times, reliving what had happened, where I had been. I know that I hadn’t really been thinking much about anything in particular other than that it was a dark night fit for only dogs, cats, burglars and people like Jack the Ripper; that Whitechapel butcher, preying on helpless women down on their luck. Maybe just that fleeting thought had done it. Rumour was that he was a gentleman. Except with those particular women, of course. Speculation was, that he was of the nobility. They were welcome to him.
I decided that I would go over my footsteps again (so to speak) from that night, but this time I had a knife that I could easily get at, in case he decided to drop in again and turn nasty. I began to half believe that I had conjured him up somehow in my conscious thoughts as I had driven the Crescent.
After that, I’d done the same thing two more times with strange results that I might write up in detail at some time, but I’ll just give the highlights here.
After Jack the Ripper, I had somehow got another bloodthirsty sod into the cab with me. Harvey, that short, irascible fellow that had learned about circulation of blood in the body sometime in the late 1500s I think, but I could be wrong about the date. I’d wanted to ask him about his discovery, but the arrogant little villain took exception to my questions, without my answering his, as immediately as he wanted, and produced his knife, and proceeded to demonstrate first hand, just how much blood there was in a human body. Mine. I should have paid more attention to history and his reputation for being of a short temper as well as short of stature. Choleric, they called it. I called it madness. Never trust a short man; they are too damned aggressive to make up for the stature that they lack. I learned a good lesson there about how some discoveries were made. He was another one like Jack the Ripper. No, I shouldn't even think about him again. That would be too dangerous.
I didn’t have to think about what to do. I was out of my cab in a flash, round it and opened the door, hauling him out by his ruffed collar. He looked a real sissy in that, but by god he was a vicious little bugger with that knife of his. I could have lost a kidney or an eye. He’d probably have written a scientific paper up on that too, in Latin; about the time needed for a grown man to exsanguinate and expire, even as I lay bleeding my last in the street.
As soon as his feet hit the ground he was gone. Poof! just like The Ripper. No one had seen anything, so I bandaged my hand up and went home, having learned something important. Watch what you wish for, as you might just get it, and that as soon as they stepped out of my cab they were history. Again.
My passenger that time, had not been wisely chosen and I still had some scars to show for that. The bruises had not taken long to mend, but I’d needed stitches for the damage that damned knife had done before I could get rid of him.
I decided that next time, I’d be more careful about who I thought about when I went ‘hunting’.
The third time I decided it might be safer if I went after a policeman or a detective, someone a bit more stable, and Sherlock Holmes sprang to mind, except he didn’t exist. I got the man inside of whose mind he’d gestated instead. Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I looked forward to talking to him.
He was a big disappointment, but fortunately, gentle. All he wanted to talk about was a recent experience, about fairies, and something about 'Cottingley', and some sisters who had fairies in one of the bushes in their garden. I'd heard about that, and those sisters.
He was a sucker for a good line spouted by some very clever women who thought they’d have some fun with the rich, gullible, and generous old gent, so I said nothing and just listened respectfully. It was the most boring evening I had ever had, and he stank up my cab with cigar smoke and tales of his exploits at medical school. He was still chuckling about a teacher who'd inveigled his students to actually drink piss, to make a diagnosis about someone's ailments. It had been a lecture on the need for careful observation. Those poor students had seen the teacher dip his finger into the vile fluid and taste it, pulling a wry face as he thought about, so they did the same. He asked their impressions, and listened to them patiently, then calmly admitted that had they been truly observant they would have seen him dip his second finger into the liquid, but had tasted only his third finger?
How he survived that class I do not know, but Doyle thought it great fun and guffawed over it several times.
I had to make up my mind fairly quickly about who I would go looking for next. It should be a woman; preferably a young one, perhaps of flexible morals…. No, better not.
I kept my eyes open, cleared my mind of him, lest I conjured up one of those earlier disasters again, and focused.
It worked. A young woman was sitting beside me.
“Why are we going so fast? And where are the horses?” The voice registered concern, but was educated and softly spoken.
“Why are we going at such a reckless pace? Where am I? What is this strange carriage? Who are you?”
My heart was beating so fast I could barely think. She was a woman alright. From early 1800 at a guess.
I steered to the side of the road, and came to a stop before I had an accident, as others beeped at me impatiently and went by.
Could it possibly be the one I had been thinking about?
“How did we stop so quickly? And what is that noise? Why are there other carriages, so many of them that appear to be out of control like this one, and no horses or coachmen?”
I took a deep breath and took a look at my fourth ‘accidental’ passenger without staring too obviously. I hoped she was not going to be difficult. She hadn’t been here when I started out, but at least there was no Harvey or Jack the Ripper, or that insufferable self-centered bore, Sherlock Holmes, I mean, Conan Doyle.
I said nothing for about a minute as I gathered my thoughts and looked her over. She studied me in turn. I am sure I looked very out of place to her. Nothing prepared me for what I saw in her long dress, and beginning to be annoyed with my personal attention to her.
I knew who she was. Or thought I might, considering what I’d done before. After the first few successes I had fantasized about going into a time warp and scooping up Elgar, even Shakespeare (or Marlow, and learn the truth about who wrote all that stuff), or even Trollope, to sit beside me and to chat about Doctor Thorne and his niece, with whom I had fallen in love. Jane Austen had been my latest mind-game, and here she was. I think.
Yes. She was dressed correctly for the period. Not a looker, but passable, or ‘gradely’ as one of my questionably-outspoken friends might have said.
She was looking at me in turn, and was sitting proudly upright (posture was important, I seem to remember her writing about that) stiff, unsure of anything, scared, and studying me, holding her obvious concern in check waiting for me to say something to convince her… of what? That I was not a lunatic from another planet, and this was not a dream, for her?
She broke the silence once more, becoming progressively more concerned.
“Do you intend to answer my questions? Can you understand me? Should I speak louder, if that will help? What is this conveyance? And where are the horses? And who are you?”
I found my tongue and muttered a name I thought might help comfort her. At least the knighthood might. “Please forgive me, Miss. I should have introduced myself earlier, but you took me by surprise. I am Sir Charles Babbage.” (Liar, and another damned fantasy, but the title and name, the only one I could come up with so quickly, might put her at ease, but not if she had ever met him. Might she have met him? But better than telling her that I was just plain John Hepworth, esquire, if I was even an esquire), or Ada Lovelace, the other woman I'd thought of calling up. Now she, would have known Babbage as they were both big into the first calculating machines; mechanical computers; fancy automatons with gears and wheels but no micro-electronics. Electricity was known, but only static electricity from voltaic piles (sounds painful to me) Leyden Jars and Wimshurst machines (except that machine came later, in the 1800s), producing fat sparks and nasty jolts.
One should never begin an introduction or a conversation with a lie. Liars need better memories than I had.
She let that big lie go, so I assumed she didn’t know Babbage.
“And where are we?” I had better not tell her where we actually were, not far in terms of miles, but almost two hundred years, from everything she was familiar with, but I could tell her where she was sitting.
“You are sitting in a vehicle that replaced… that is about to replace….” No, enough with the lies. “You are sitting in a vehicle that replaced the horse and carriage in this country, some time ago, by replacing the horse or horses with an engine." She might know about engines (steam engines), though not the kind we are used to.
"It is called an automobile, or a car, a word abbreviated from Chariot and carriage, as I am sure you know. Well, you would know about the second bit anyway.”
There was a flush upon her face. She understood little of what I had said and in any case it was not believable. Her eyes sparkled with anger at being deceived. She hesitated to call me a charlatan, or mad, or a liar. She was a gentlewoman and would not condescend to talk to one such as me in those demeaning terms which would have revealed a lack of breeding. To her, I was a mere tradesperson. She waited for more of an explanation before she would pass judgment.
However, she couldn’t argue with her own eyes, but she was not sure she could believe anything she saw, or heard. Would that more of us were like that. Two of her five senses were misleading her.
"And which country is this, pray? I am sure I would have heard about this. We do subscribe to the Gazette and other papers you know, and what is that noise?"
I evaded her first question. This was not the England she knew, though I was prepared to lie again if I thought it convenient. “The noise you can hear, comes from the engine (from the word…. She waved her hand impatiently to shut me up; for me to get to the point, so she knew about that word)—I told you about that—under there.” I pointed to the front of us.
“Engine?” Maybe she wasn't familiar with that word.
“Yes. The thing which replaced horses, and which propels this conveyance along." I was falling into her way of talking. "I take on the role of coachman, and decide which direction we go, and how quickly. Just as a coachman does.” I looked at her to see her purse her lips in skepticism of everything I had said. “And you, I believe are Miss Jane Austen.”
She now began to look alarmed. “How do you know that? We have never been introduced.”
Oops! Another gaffe on my part.
Maybe some flattery might appease her. “I have downloaded and read all of your books and even seen….” She would not know about the internet and downloads, or television productions, or films, so I’d better stop there.
“Downloaded?” She repeated the word. “It sounds dangerously like a military venture. What does that mean? You speak English as I do, yet most of what you say is quite foreign to me.” She looked around, possibly wondering how to escape this peculiar individual. “In fact everything is strange to me. Furthermore, sir, you are not Sir Charles Babbage.”
“No. I am not, but I was struggling to find some way of reassuring you, but I did unwisely choose a not very clever way. My name is John Hepworth, and you are in my car… carriage, a horseless carriage, a modern day chariot. I was just at the supermarket, shopping and then returning home.”
“Supermarket? Shopping?” She sneered at the visions conjured up of tradespeople (her suspicions had been confirmed), and looked around. “I would never think to take my cat in the carriage with me.”
Sir Percival, my cat, was admiring her from his perch on the back ledge. I sometimes took him with me.
“He, his name is Sir Percival, insists I take him.” At least the cat had a respectable title, but not one conferred by any monarch she knew.
“So you talk to cats too, as well as giving them and yourself, knighthoods? I am sure that is original.” Clearly, she thought me quite mad or deranged in some way.
She must have been agitated enough to trigger the door latch, pulling at things in her nervousness. The door opened, and she saw a means to escape this madman. As quickly as she had appeared, she disappeared, even as I reached out to stop her, catching only a finger of her glove, which she left in my hand.
"No, please don't...."
Thinking about all of that afterward, I wondered if I might be able to get a repeat of that particularly haunting encounter. I had a glove I could return to her. I wouldn't mind a few more minutes, or longer, of that one's company. She would be a challenge and I had to figure out how to get her out of my cab and into my home without her disappearing. I had plans for her after that too, but..., well I could dream couldn't I? It would be interesting to find out if the clothing of the day included the usual female undergarments. They wouldn't be needed with skirts that long.
Give it a few days and I would go after Miss Jane Austen again. There had been something about her; something that had interested me. However, I needed to do a lot more research on this wonderful writer that had shaped the novel-writing of millions, and especially do more research on the woman herself and her family. One other thing... enough, with the lies. I had to be me.