London Impressions by Stephen Crane
London at first consisted of a porter with the most charming manners in
the world, and a cabman with a supreme intelligence, both observing my
profound ignorance without contempt or humor of any kind observable in
their manners. It was in a great resounding vault of a place where
there were many people who had come home, and I was displeased because
they knew the detail of the business, whereas I was confronting the
inscrutable. This made them appear very stony-hearted to the sufferings
of one of whose existence, to be sure, they were entirely unaware, and
I remember taking great pleasure in disliking them heartily for it. I
was in an agony of mind over my baggage, or my luggage, or my—perhaps
it is well to shy around this terrible international question; but I
remember that when I was a lad I was told that there was a whole nation
that said luggage instead of baggage, and my boyish mind was filled at
the time with incredulity and scorn. In the present case it was a thing
that I understood to involve the most hideous confessions of imbecility
on my part, because I had evidently to go out to some obscure point and
espy it and claim it, and take trouble for it; and I would rather have
had my pockets filled with bread and cheese, and had no baggage at all.
Mind you, this was not at all a homage that I was paying to London. I
was paying homage to a new game. A man properly lazy does not like new
experiences until they become old ones. Moreover, I have been taught
that a man, any man, who has a thousand times more points of
information on a certain thing than I have will bully me because of it,
and pour his advantages upon my bowed head until I am drenched with his
superiority. It was in my education to concede some license of the kind
in this case, but the holy father of a porter and the saintly cabman
occupied the middle distance imperturbably, and did not come down from
their hills to clout me with knowledge. From this fact I experienced a
criminal elation. I lost view of the idea that if I had been
brow-beaten by porters and cabmen from one end of the United States to
the other end I should warmly like it, because in numbers they are
superior to me, and collectively they can have a great deal of fun out
of a matter that would merely afford me the glee of the latent butcher.
This London, composed of a porter and a cabman, stood to me subtly as a
benefactor. I had scanned the drama, and found that I did not believe
that the mood of the men emanated unduly from the feature that there
was probably more shillings to the square inch of me than there were
shillings to the square inch of them. Nor yet was it any manner of
palpable warm-heartedness or other natural virtue. But it was a perfect
artificial virtue; it was drill, plain, simple drill. And now was I
glad of their drilling, and vividly approved of it, because I saw that
it was good for me. Whether it was good or bad for the porter and the
cabman I could not know; but that point, mark you, came within the pale
of my respectable rumination.
I am sure that it would have been more correct for me to have alighted
upon St. Paul's and described no emotion until I was overcome by the
Thames Embankment and the Houses of Parliament. But as a matter of fact
I did not see them for some days, and at this time they did not concern
me at all. I was born in London at a railroad station, and my new
vision encompassed a porter and a cabman. They deeply absorbed me in
new phenomena, and I did not then care to see the Thames Embankment nor
the Houses of Parliament. I considered the porter and the cabman to be
The cab finally rolled out of the gas-lit vault into a vast expanse of
gloom. This changed to the shadowy lines of a street that was like a
passage in a monstrous cave. The lamps winking here and there resembled
the little gleams at the caps of the miners. They were not very
competent illuminations at best, merely being little pale flares of gas
that at their most heroic periods could only display one fact
concerning this tunnel—the fact of general direction. But at any rate
I should have liked to have observed the dejection of a search-light if
it had been called upon to attempt to bore through this atmosphere. In
it each man sat in his own little cylinder of vision, so to speak. It
was not so small as a sentry-box nor so large as a circus tent, but the
walls were opaque, and what was passing beyond the dimensions of his
cylinder no man knew.
It was evident that the paving was very greasy, but all the cabs that
passed through my cylinder were going at a round trot, while the
wheels, shod in rubber, whirred merely like bicycles. The hoofs of the
animals themselves did not make that wild clatter which I knew so well.
New York in fact, roars always like ten thousand devils. We have
ingenuous and simple ways of making a din in New York that cause the
stranger to conclude that each citizen is obliged by statute to provide
himself with a pair of cymbals and a drum. If anything by chance can be
turned into a noise it is promptly turned. We are engaged in the
development of a human creature with very large, sturdy, and doubly,
It was not too late at night, but this London moved with the decorum
and caution of an undertaker. There was a silence, and yet there was no
silence. There was a low drone, perhaps a humming contributed
inevitably by closely-gathered thousands, and yet on second thoughts it
was to me silence. I had perched my ears for the note of London, the
sound made simply by the existence of five million people in one place.
I had imagined something deep, vastly deep, a bass from a mythical
organ, but found as far as I was concerned, only a silence.
New York in numbers is a mighty city, and all day and all night it
cries its loud, fierce, aspiring cry, a noise of men beating upon
barrels, a noise of men beating upon tin, a terrific racket that
assails the abject skies. No one of us seemed to question this row as a
certain consequence of three or four million people living together and
scuffling for coin, with more agility, perhaps, but otherwise in the
usual way. However, after this easy silence of London, which in numbers
is a mightier city, I began to feel that there was a seduction in this
idea of necessity. Our noise in New York was not a consequence of our
rapidity at all. It was a consequence of our bad pavements.
Any brigade of artillery in Europe that would love to assemble its
batteries, and then go on a gallop over the land, thundering and
thundering, would give up the idea of thunder at once if it could hear
Tim Mulligan drive a beer wagon along one of the side streets of
cobbled New York.
Finally a great thing came to pass. The cab horse, proceeding at a
sharp trot, found himself suddenly at the top of an incline, where
through the rain the pavement shone like an expanse of ice. It looked
to me as if there was going to be a tumble. In an accident of such a
kind a hansom becomes really a cannon in which a man finds that he has
paid shillings for the privilege of serving as a projectile. I was
making a rapid calculation of the arc that I would describe in my
flight, when the horse met his crisis with a masterly device that I
could not have imagined. He tranquilly braced his four feet like a
bundle of stakes, and then, with a gentle gaiety of demeanor, he slid
swiftly and gracefully to the bottom of the hill as if he had been a
toboggan. When the incline ended he caught his gait again with great
dexterity, and went pattering off through another tunnel.
I at once looked upon myself as being singularly blessed by this sight.
This horse had evidently originated this system of skating as a
diversion, or, more probably, as a precaution against the slippery
pavement; and he was, of course the inventor and sole proprietor—two
terms that are not always in conjunction. It surely was not to be
supposed that there could be two skaters like him in the world. He
deserved to be known and publicly praised for this accomplishment. It
was worthy of many records and exhibitions. But when the cab arrived at
a place where some dipping streets met, and the flaming front of a
music-hall temporarily widened my cylinder, behold there were many
cabs, and as the moment of necessity came the horses were all skaters.
They were gliding in all directions. It might have been a rink. A great
omnibus was hailed by a hand under an umbrella on the side walk, and
the dignified horses bidden to halt from their trot did not waste time
in wild and unseemly spasms. They, too, braced their legs and slid
gravely to the end of their momentum.
It was not the feat, but it was the word which had at this time the
power to conjure memories of skating parties on moonlit lakes, with
laughter ringing over the ice, and a great red bonfire on the shore
among the hemlocks.
A Terrible thing in nature is the fall of a horse in his harness. It is
a tragedy. Despite their skill in skating there was that about the
pavement on the rainy evening which filled me with expectations of
horses going headlong. Finally it happened just in front. There was a
shout and a tangle in the darkness, and presently a prostrate cab horse
came within my cylinder. The accident having been a complete success
and altogether concluded, a voice from the side walk said, "Look out,
now! Be more careful, can't you?"
I remember a constituent of a Congressman at Washington who had tried
in vain to bore this Congressman with a wild project of some kind. The
Congressman eluded him with skill, and his rage and despair ultimately
culminated in the supreme grievance that he could not even get near
enough to the Congressman to tell him to go to Hades.
This cabman should have felt the same desire to strangle this man who
spoke from the sidewalk. He was plainly impotent; he was deprived of
the power of looking out. There was nothing now for which to look out.
The man on the sidewalk had dragged a corpse from a pond and said to it,
"Be more careful, can't you, or you'll drown?" My cabman pulled up
and addressed a few words of reproach to the other. Three or four
figures loomed into my cylinder, and as they appeared spoke to the
author or the victim of the calamity in varied terms of displeasure.
Each of these reproaches was couched in terms that defined the
situation as impending. No blind man could have conceived that the
precipitate phrase of the incident was absolutely closed.
"Look out now, cawn't you?" And there was nothing in his mind which
approached these sentiments near enough to tell them to go to Hades.
However, it needed only an ear to know presently that these expressions
were formulae. It was merely the obligatory dance which the Indians had
to perform before they went to war. These men had come to help, but as
a regular and traditional preliminary they had first to display to this
cabman their idea of his ignominy.
The different thing in the affair was the silence of the victim. He
retorted never a word. This, too, to me seemed to be an obedience to a
recognized form. He was the visible criminal, if there was a criminal,
and there was born of it a privilege for them.
They unfastened the proper straps and hauled back the cab. They fetched
a mat from some obscure place of succor, and pushed it carefully under
the prostrate thing. From this panting, quivering mass they suddenly
and emphatically reconstructed a horse. As each man turned to go his
way he delivered some superior caution to the cabman while the latter
buckled his harness.
There was to be noticed in this band of rescuers a young man in evening
clothes and top-hat. Now, in America a young man in evening clothes and
a top-hat may be a terrible object. He is not likely to do violence,
but he is likely to do impassivity and indifference to the point where
they become worse than violence. There are certain of the more idle
phases of civilization to which America has not yet awakened—and it is
a matter of no moment if she remains unaware. This matter of hats is
one of them. I recall a legend recited to me by an esteemed friend,
ex-Sheriff of Tin Can, Nevada. Jim Cortright, one of the best
gun-fighters in town, went on a journey to Chicago, and while there he
procured a top-hat. He was quite sure how Tin Can would accept this
innovation, but he relied on the celerity with which he could get a
six-shooter in action. One Sunday Jim examined his guns with his usual
care, placed the top-hat on the back of his head, and sauntered coolly
out into the streets of Tin Can.
Now, while Jim was in Chicago some progressive citizen had decided that
Tin Can needed a bowling alley. The carpenters went to work the next
morning, and an order for the balls and pins was telegraphed to Denver.
In three days the whole population was concentrated at the new alley
betting their outfits and their lives.
It has since been accounted very unfortunate that Jim Cortright had not
learned of bowling alleys at his mother's knee or even later in the
mines. This portion of his mind was singularly belated. He might have
been an Apache for all he knew of bowling alleys.
In his careless stroll through the town, his hands not far from his
belt and his eyes going sideways in order to see who would shoot first
at the hat, he came upon this long, low shanty where Tin Can was
betting itself hoarse over a game between a team from the ranks of
Excelsior Hose Company No. 1 and a team composed from the habitues of
the "Red Light" saloon.
Jim, in blank ignorance of bowling phenomena, wandered casually through
a little door into what must always be termed the wrong end of a
bowling alley. Of course, he saw that the supreme moment had come. They
were not only shooting at the hat and at him, but the low-down cusses
were using the most extraordinary and hellish ammunition. Still,
perfectly undaunted, however, Jim retorted with his two Colts, and
killed three of the best bowlers in Tin Can.
The ex-Sheriff vouched for this story. He himself had gone headlong
through the door at the firing of the first shot with that simple
courtesy which leads Western men to donate the fighters plenty of room.
He said that afterwards the hat was the cause of a number of other
fights, and that finally a delegation of prominent citizens was obliged
to wait upon Cortright and ask him if he wouldn't take that thing away
somewhere and bury it. Jim pointed out to them that it was his hat, and
that he would regard it as a cowardly concession if he submitted to
their dictation in the matter of his headgear. He added that he
purposed to continue to wear his top-hat on every occasion when he
happened to feel that the wearing of a top-hat was a joy and a solace
The delegation sadly retired, and announced to the town that Jim
Cortright had openly defied them, and had declared his purpose of
forcing his top-hat on the pained attention of Tin Can whenever he
chose. Jim Cortright's plug hat became a phrase with considerable
meaning to it.
However, the whole affair ended in a great passionate outburst of
popular revolution. Spike Foster was a friend of Cortright, and one
day, when the latter was indisposed, Spike came to him and borrowed the
hat. He had been drinking heavily at the "Red Light," and was in a
supremely reckless mood. With the terrible gear hanging jauntily over
his eye and his two guns drawn, he walked straight out into the middle
of the square in front of the Palace Hotel, and drew the attention of
all Tin Can by a blood-curdling imitation of the yowl of a mountain
This was when the long suffering populace arose as one man. The top-hat
had been flaunted once too often. When Spike Foster's friends came to
carry him away they found nearly a hundred and fifty men shooting
busily at a mark—and the mark was the hat.
My informant told me that he believed he owed his popularity in Tin
Can, and subsequently his election to the distinguished office of
Sheriff, to the active and prominent part he had taken in the
The enmity to the top-hat expressed by the convincing anecdote exists
in the American West at present, I think, in the perfection of its
strength; but disapproval is not now displayed by volleys from the
citizens, save in the most aggravating cases. It is at present usually
a matter of mere jibe and general contempt. The East, however, despite
a great deal of kicking and gouging, is having the top-hat stuffed
slowly and carefully down its throat, and there now exist many young
men who consider that they could not successfully conduct their lives
without this furniture.
To speak generally, I should say that the headgear then supplies them
with a kind of ferocity of indifference. There is fire, sword, and
pestilence in the way they heed only themselves. Philosophy should
always know that indifference is a militant thing. It batters down the
walls of cities, and murders the women and children amid flames and the
purloining of altar vessels. When it goes away it leaves smoking ruins,
where lie citizens bayoneted through the throat. It is not a children's
pastime like mere highway robbery.
Consequently in America we may be much afraid of these young men. We
dive down alleys so that we may not kowtow. It is a fearsome thing.
Taught thus a deep fear of the top-hat in its effect upon youth, I was
not prepared for the move of this particular young man when the
cab-horse fell. In fact, I grovelled in my corner that I might not see
the cruel stateliness of his passing. But in the meantime he had
crossed the street, and contributed the strength of his back and some
advice, as well as the formal address, to the cabman on the importance
of looking out immediately.
I felt that I was making a notable collection. I had a new kind of
porter, a cylinder of vision, horses that could skate, and now I added
a young man in a top-hat who would tacitly admit that the beings around
him were alive. He was not walking a churchyard filled with inferior
headstones. He was walking the world, where there were people, many
But later I took him out of the collection. I thought he had rebelled
against the manner of a class, but I soon discovered that the top-hat
was not the property of a class. It was the property of rogues, clerks,
theatrical agents, damned seducers, poor men, nobles, and others. In
fact, it was the universal rigging. It was the only hat; all other
forms might as well be named ham, or chops, or oysters. I retracted my
admiration of the young man because he may have been merely a rogue.
There was a window whereat an enterprising man by dodging two placards
and a calendar was entitled to view a young woman. She was dejectedly
writing in a large book. She was ultimately induced to open the window
a trifle. "What nyme, please?" she said wearily. I was surprised to
hear this language from her. I had expected to be addressed on a
submarine topic. I have seen shell fishes sadly writing in large books
at the bottom of a gloomy acquarium who could not ask me what was my
At the end of the hall there was a grim portal marked "lift." I pressed
an electric button and heard an answering tinkle in the heavens. There
was an upholstered settle near at hand, and I discovered the reason. A
deer-stalking peace drooped upon everything, and in it a man could
invoke the passing of a lazy pageant of twenty years of his life. The
dignity of a coffin being lowered into a grave surrounded the ultimate
appearance of the lift. The expert we in America call the elevator-boy
stepped from the car, took three paces forward, faced to attention and
saluted. This elevator boy could not have been less than sixty years of
age; a great white beard streamed towards his belt. I saw that the lift
had been longer on its voyage than I had suspected.
Later in our upward progress a natural event would have been an
establishment of social relations. Two enemies imprisoned together
during the still hours of a balloon journey would, I believe, suffer a
mental amalgamation. The overhang of a common fate, a great principal
fact, can make an equality and a truce between any pair. Yet, when I
disembarked, a final survey of the grey beard made me recall that I had
failed even to ask the boy whether he had not taken probably three
trips on this lift.
My windows overlooked simply a great sea of night, in which were
swimming little gas fishes.
I have of late been led to reflect wistfully that many of the
illustrators are very clever. In an impatience, which was donated by a
certain economy of apparel, I went to a window to look upon day-lit
London. There were the 'buses parading the streets with the miens of
elephants There were the police looking precisely as I had been
informed by the prints. There were the sandwich-men. There was almost
But the artists had not told me the sound of London. Now, in New York
the artists are able to portray sound because in New York a dray is not
a dray at all; it is a great potent noise hauled by two or more horses.
When a magazine containing an illustration of a New York street is sent
to me, I always know it beforehand. I can hear it coming through the
mails. As I have said previously, this which I must call sound of
London was to me only a silence.
Later, in front of the hotel a cabman that I hailed said to me—"Are
you gowing far, sir? I've got a byby here, and want to giv'er a bit of
a blough." This impressed me as being probably a quotation from an
early Egyptian poet, but I learned soon enough that the word "byby" was
the name of some kind or condition of horse. The cabman's next remark
was addressed to a boy who took a perilous dive between the byby's nose
and a cab in front. "That's roight. Put your head in there and get it
jammed—a whackin good place for it, I should think." Although the tone
was low and circumspect, I have never heard a better off-handed
declamation. Every word was cut clear of disreputable alliances with
its neighbors. The whole thing was clean as a row of pewter mugs. The
influence of indignation upon the voice caused me to reflect that we
might devise a mechanical means of inflaming some in that constellation
of mummers which is the heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race.
Then I saw the drilling of vehicles by two policemen. There were four
torrents converging at a point, and when four torrents converge at one
point engineering experts buy tickets for another place.
But here, again, it was drill, plain, simple drill. I must not falter
in saying that I think the management of the traffic—as the phrase
goes—to be distinctly illuminating and wonderful. The police were not
ruffled and exasperated. They were as peaceful as two cows in a pasture.
I can remember once remarking that mankind, with all its boasted modern
progress, had not yet been able to invent a turnstile that will commute
in fractions. I have now learned that 756 rights-of-way cannot operate
simultaneously at one point. Right-of-way, like fighting women,
requires space. Even two rights-of-way can make a scene which is only
suited to the tastes of an ancient public.
This truth was very evidently recognized. There was only one
right-of-way at a time. The police did not look behind them to see if
their orders were to be obeyed; they knew they were to be obeyed. These
four torrents were drilling like four battalions. The two blue-cloth
men maneuvered them in solemn, abiding peace, the silence of London.
I thought at first that it was the intellect of the individual, but I
looked at one constable closely and his face was as afire with
intelligence as a flannel pin-cushion. It was not the police, and it
was not the crowd. It was the police and the crowd. Again, it was drill.
I have never been in the habit of reading signs. I don't like to read
signs. I have never met a man that liked to read signs. I once invented
a creature who could play the piano with a hammer, and I mentioned him
to a professor in Harvard University whose peculiarity was Sanscrit. He
had the same interest in my invention that I have in a certain kind of
mustard. And yet this mustard has become a part of me. Or, I have
become a part of this mustard. Further, I know more of an ink, a brand
of hams, a kind of cigarette, and a novelist than any man living. I
went by train to see a friend in the country, and after passing through
a patent mucilage, some more hams, a South African Investment Company,
a Parisian millinery firm, and a comic journal, I alighted at a new and
original kind of corset. On my return journey the road almost
continuously ran through soap.
I have accumulated superior information concerning these things,
because I am at their mercy. If I want to know where I am I must find
the definitive sign. This accounts for my glib use of the word
mucilage, as well as the titles of other staples.
I suppose even the Briton in mixing his life must sometimes consult the
labels on 'buses and streets and stations, even as the chemist consults
the labels on his bottles and boxes. A brave man would possibly affirm
that this was suggested by the existence of the labels.
The reason that I did not learn more about hams and mucilage in New
York seems to me to be partly due to the fact that the British
advertiser is allowed to exercise an unbridled strategy in his attack
with his new corset or whatever upon the defensive public. He knows
that the vulnerable point is the informatory sign which the citizen
must, of course, use for his guidance, and then, with horse, foot,
guns, corsets, hams, mucilage, investment companies, and all, he hurls
himself at the point.
Meanwhile I have discovered a way to make the Sanscrit scholar heed my
creature who plays the piano with a hammer.