Insult of the Week: “An extraordinary specimen of human fungus”

In chapter 26 of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), Mr. George Rouncewell and his assistant Phil Squod are busy preparing for a day of work in the shooting gallery when they are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Grandfather Smallweed and his granddaughter Judy. Mr. Smallweed describes their engagement of a hackney cab for the journey and gestures to Judy to pay the driver:

“So we got a hackney-cab, and put a chair in it, and just round the corner they lifted me out of the cab and into the chair, and carried me here that I might see my dear friend in his own establishment! This,” says Grandfather Smallweed, alluding to the bearer, who has been in danger of strangulation and who withdraws adjusting his windpipe, “is the driver of the cab. He has nothing extra. It is by agreement included in his fare. This person,” the other bearer, “we engaged in the street outside for a pint of beer. Which is twopence. Judy, give the person twopence. I was not sure you had a workman of your own here, my dear friend, or we needn’t have employed this person.”

Grandfather Smallweed refers to Phil with a glance of considerable terror and a half-subdued “O Lord! Oh, dear me!” Nor in his apprehension, on the surface of things, without some reason, for Phil, who has never beheld the apparition in the black-velvet cap before, has stopped short with a gun in his hand with much of the air of a dead shot intent on picking Mr. Smallweed off as an ugly old bird of the crow species.

The Smallweed family

“Judy, my child,” says Grandfather Smallweed, “give the person his twopence. It’s a great deal for what he has done.”

The narrator  goes on to describe poor hackney-cab drivers…

“The person, who is one of those extraordinary specimens of human fungus that spring up spontaneously in the western streets of London, ready dressed in an old red jacket, with a “mission” for holding horses and calling coaches, received his twopence with anything but transport, tosses the money into the air, catches it over-handed, and retires.”

Image taken from British Library  page 263 of ‘Bleak House … With illustrations by H. K. Browne’

 

 

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