The Man on the Church Street Omnibus

Philip Brian Hall


From Gloucester Road to Kensington Church Street is two stops of the dark-green-liveried public omnibus, operated by the Kensington and Hammersmith Company for the benefit of local inhabitants and the great profit of its shareholders. Tastefully appointed and having a coat of arms proudly displayed on its side, the smart four-horse vehicle daily proceeds about its duty of transporting the bankers and businessmen of our great capital’s richest borough to and from London Bridge, by way of Knightsbridge, Piccadilly, Charing Cross, The Strand and The Bank of England.

The law commands the prominent display beside the omnibus doorway of a statement of its fares. These begin at twopence for a short journey and reach the extraordinary sum of sixpence, one sixth of a workman’s weekly wage, for the whole trip. Long familiarity with this route has however taught us that the conductors are all quite incapable of noticing that any person has boarded their equipage other than at the terminus, so that the unwary are regularly charged the full fare if they are unwilling to argue their case in public and with some vigor.

On a certain day in the late autumn of the year 1863, a man in a military greatcoat, with a uniform cap pulled down to his eyebrows, boarded the omnibus at Gloucester Road as it made its way back from The City towards Hammersmith. Nothing could be seen of the man’s face, beyond a large black mustache and a thin mouth pursed in what some might call a hunted expression. He was tall, but proceeded with a remarkably light step to a vacant seat in the rear of the vehicle. Once there, he sat awkwardly, turning his head from side to side as though keeping furtive lookout for someone or some thing.

During the stop at Gloucester Road and for some minutes thereafter, our conductor of the day had been engaged in a protracted argument with a passenger seated upon the top deck of the vehicle, who was smoking an expensive cigar and inveighing to all and sundry against the enfranchisement of potwallopers. This discussion was still in progress as the omnibus entered Kensington High Street and drew up at the foot of the Church Street hill, where the gentleman of military appearance got up to disembark.

With the innate sixth sense of all his kind for a fare about to escape, the conductor suddenly broke off his vehement discourse and rushed down the stairs, clamping a hand upon the gentleman’s shoulder as he made to step down into the road.

“‘Ere you,” he accosted the man, in high dudgeon. “There’s no gettin’ horf wivart payin’ yer fare. That’ll be sixpence, please!”

“Mistake zere is, I sink,” replied the gentleman. He spoke English slowly and with a pronounced Germanic accent. “At Glowchester Road only, I am boarding.”

“Nar then, none o’ that!” insisted the conductor. “Sixpence, I sez and sixpence I wants!”

“Wery vell, since I haf little time,” the military gentleman conceded unhappily and reached into the deep pocket of his greatcoat, whence he produced a silver coin and handed it to the conductor before turning back to the door of the omnibus.

Barely had the military gentleman alighted and gone two steps than the conductor leaped off the platform of the omnibus and made after him, again seizing him by the shoulder.

“Oy! Oh no you don’t!” the conductor exclaimed. “This ‘ere ain’t a proper sixpence. It’s some kind o’ foreign rubbish!”

“I regret no sixpences coins I haf,” the man replied. “This a silver penny of King Offa is; more than one thousand years old. Value today perhaps five pounds.” He then made as if to be on his way.

The conductor was not so easily mollified. “So you say, matey; so you say. All I knows is what I sees ‘ere. One penny, eh? So I wants five more of ‘em, don’ I? Sixpence the fare is.”

“So much value for two stops you wish?” exclaimed the man, astounded. “Wery vell, go now I must, but another time another omnibus to take I vill remember.” And reaching again into his pocket the man extracted a further five Offa pennies and handed them to the conductor.

Giving the military gentleman a surly look, the conductor put one of the silver coins between his teeth and bit it, then grunted with satisfaction and returned to his omnibus. “And remember,” he called over his shoulder, “Sixpence, the fare is. Hallways sixpence!”

Despite being very little imbued with education, our conductor was not a stupid man. It was one thing to demand six individual penny pieces of the military gentleman; it was quite another to pass up the profit that he might earn from the transaction. Five pounds each, the man had said. Six times five pounds was thirty pounds; more than the conductor could earn in a year!

By rights his employers were entitled to the correct fare of twopence. In the circumstances he decided to be both scrupulously honest and generous. He took a thruppenny piece from his pocket and added it to the quantity of coins in his cash bag. Then he placed the Offa pennies in the inside pocket of his own coat.

***

“And the man claimed that he received them in lieu of the proper fare for two stops on the omnibus?” Professor Ponsonby’s beetling eyebrows could hardly have been more elevated without disappearing into his untidy hair.

“Apparently so,” replied Sergeant MacAndrew. The red-haired Scot was sitting opposite the distinguished academic across the latter’s leather-topped partner’s desk. The policeman’s tweed suit and waistcoat seemed out of place inside the august portals of The British Museum, but the detective himself did not. Alert eyes took in every detail of the curator’s paper-strewn office.

“The receiver we arrested had given him ten pounds for the lot. When we tracked down the conductor, he admitted he’d substituted a few pennies of his own for what the military gentleman had given him. What he couldn’t do was give us more than a very limited description and the information that the man had got off at Kensington Church Street.”

“Well, I can assure you, Sergeant, the coins are genuine.” The professor shook his head in wonderment. “They are more than that; they are quite remarkable. I have never seen even one in this sort of condition in all my years in this place. Yet here are six, all of them looking as though they have been wrapped in velvet for a thousand years rather than buried in the ground. This is the most important archaeological find in a generation, Sergeant. It is imperative that this man is found and questioned.”

“I understand, professor.” MacAndrew’s nose twitched as though detecting a faint scent of his favorite quarry, money. “But for me to devote police time and resources to this I need evidence of a serious crime. Ten pounds - well, that justifies little more than a single constable for day or two at most.”

Ponsonby frowned, his expression suggesting that a man who understood value only in coarse monetary terms was contemptible. Nevertheless, time was clearly short and the museum had no funds with which to employ investigators of its own.

“The value of these coins at auction would be nearer ten pounds each, in such pristine condition perhaps even more, rather than ten pounds the lot. Moreover it is highly improbable that such meticulous storage would have been employed to preserve only a small number. Somewhere there is a hoard.”

“And the crime, sir?”

“Sergeant, whoever this military man is, he has access to a treasure trove that should by rights have been declared to Her Majesty’s Coroner and offered for sale to an institution such as this, not retained in private hands. In effect, this man, whoever he is, has stolen a large sum of money from the government.”

***

Not for nothing was Sergeant MacAndrew known as ‘The Red Fox’ of Scotland Yard. The cunning Aberdonian had apprehended more evil doers than most policemen had enjoyed hot dinners, yet this latest case seemed to have him perplexed.

“Why, Smithers,” he inquired of his assistant, a keen young detective constable of twenty-two, “would a man in possession of so many valuable coins that he thinks nothing of carrying them around carelessly in his pocket, be unprovided with a few coppers to pay his fare on the omnibus?”

“Why would he even board the omnibus, knowing that he could not pay the fare?” Smithers replied. Despite his middle class origins and keen brain, Smithers had the physique of a wrestler and a broken nose courtesy of a drunken docker resisting arrest. This lent his voice a nasal twang. “A fit military man could walk from Gloucester Road to Church Street in fifteen minutes at most. We have to assume he was in great haste and the saving of a few minutes seemed vital to him. Perhaps he had stolen the coins and was fleeing from the rightful owner?”

“Won’t do, Smithers.” MacAndrew shook his head and pulled at his lower lip reflectively. “In such a case he’d hardly be so ready to hand over sixty pounds’ worth to the conductor for a twopenny fare.”

“More likely to bash the conductor over the head and run for it,” Smithers agreed. “Giving them up so easily, sir, would seem to suggest he placed little value on them. And yet he knew they were worth at least five pounds each because that’s what he told the conductor.”

“I’ll wager the professor’s right; he has so many of them that half a dozen were not worth making a fuss about,” said MacAndrew. “And yet I agree with you he was in a hurry. I’m thinking, though, that his hurry was not connected with the coins.”

“An urgent appointment?”

“That would be my guess.” MacAndrew acknowledged the young officer’s suggestion with an appreciative smile. “Now where was he going in such a hurry in Church Street?”

***

“And did you see him come out?” Smithers demanded, his eyes narrowing to slits in the way they sometimes did when interrogating a witness.

“No, I can’t say that I did.” The Reverend Sinclair, vicar of St Mary Abbots, the Renaissance church at the junction of Kensington High Street and Church Street, was a plump, round-faced, affable man who enjoyed talking to all sorts of strangers in his parish. Even policemen.

“But I wasn’t paying particular attention of course. It’s not unusual for people to take a shortcut across the churchyard on their way up to Notting Hill. And we have surveyors and their assistants coming around all the time. We’re rebuilding you know. The borough population is expanding rapidly and the present church is too small. Mr George Gilbert Scott is designing a new one for us.”

“A great man.” Smithers nodded in approval, since that was clearly expected, though he had little or no knowledge of the great man’s work. “But you are confident that this person wore a military greatcoat and cap and was looking around him all the time, as though he expected to be followed?”

“I don’t believe that I described him as expecting to be followed,” replied the vicar. “It was merely that he did a great deal of looking back and forth. He might have been lost and trying to find his bearings, or he might have been hoping to meet someone, I suppose. Unfortunately I was in a hurry myself at the time or I might have stopped to assist him. I had received a message that a parishioner was dangerously ill.”

“And this encounter was before or after you heard the disturbance in the churchyard at midnight?”

“I heard the noises that same night, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a disturbance. There was a brief argument and a sound like a door being opened and closed. Now, there is no door in the churchyard except the one in the family tomb of the Benbows. I investigated at first light and found nothing there beyond a number of footprints in the grass.”

“There was no sign of forced entry or any other damage to the tomb?”

“No, constable, none whatsoever. Had there been any, I would of course have called the police there and then.”

***

The night was dry and not particularly cold, yet Smithers shivered as he waited in his place of concealment amongst the dark shadows thrown by the small grove of churchyard yews. MacAndrew had repeatedly told him that he read too many penny dreadfuls. For once Smithers was inclined to agree, since tales of living corpses or man-eating phantoms are somehow more credible to one hiding amongst gravestones at night than they are in the warm light of day. In the dark a man’s sense of smell and hearing are also accentuated, and a city dweller is not always sure what to make of the musk of a fox or the hoot of an owl.

Although the four policemen who watched patiently around St Mary Abbots were out of range of the orange glow of the gaslights that lined Kensington High Street, there was a more than adequate moon in a reasonably clear sky. It would be impossible for so much as a prowling tomcat to cross the churchyard without being seen.

MacAndrew himself, naturally, had appropriated the choicest position. He was at a window high in the church tower overlooking the whole scene, and had even procured for himself a chair. The two uniformed constables, like Smithers himself, were in the open air. Each of them was in possession of a shuttered lantern for the purpose of signaling to his colleagues. Smithers’ glance roved regularly around the churchyard to check that none of their lights had been exposed.

It had been all Smithers’ idea that the Benbow tomb disturbance and the man in the military greatcoat were somehow connected. As the night dragged on, he was afraid of being made to look a fool, despite having MacAndrew’s endorsement.

“A soldier,” he had said to his Sergeant, “would not have been wearing his greatcoat in such warm weather. That day there were people in business suits sitting comfortably out in the open on the top deck. What if he wore the greatcoat to conceal the fact that his clothes were somehow unsuitable? Perhaps a disguise helpful in the commission of a crime, but not in the subsequent escape.”

“A palace servant’s livery, for example, or even a police uniform?”

“Exactly. A fake policeman would hardly wish to be called to another crime as he fled.”

“In haste to meet a confederate, or to reach his lair and change.” MacAndrew nodded. “Yet he boarded the omnibus headed for Hammersmith and then set off across the churchyard towards Notting Hill on foot when he could have taken the omnibus to Notting Hill Gate in the first place.”

“He was looking about him to see that he was not followed,” Smithers added. “The tomb is locked and the Benbow family holds the key. All of them are presently away taking the waters. If a gang of coin thieves wanted a convenient base in a rich borough, and they could either lay their hands on a key to the tomb or were able to pick the lock, then they could hardly have chosen a place we were less likely to search.”

To Smithers, the logic still seemed strong, yet the excitement that had attended the beginning of their night watch had long since faded and his eyelids were becoming heavy. He wondered at what hour MacAndrew would choose to call off the vigil. His eyes strayed again to the church tower, then stopped. He was quickly alert. The light of MacAndrew’s lantern glimmered in the high window.

Briefly unshuttering his own lantern and pointing it towards the tower, Smithers crept forward to a point where he could see the door of the tomb. He inhaled sharply. The door stood open. There was a dim blue illumination inside the sepulcher itself, whilst a dark figure stood outside the door, silhouetted against the ghoulish light.

But this was no phantom. Smithers could hear voices; there was whispering between the man outside and one or more persons inside. The conversation was not loud enough for him to overhear it clearly, but he suspected that the language was not English. Had they uncovered a nest of spies? With a glance to each side to ensure the two uniformed constables were in position, Smith took out his whistle and blew a strong blast.

“Police!” he called. “Stay where you are! You are all under arrest!”

The man outside, instead of making a run for it, endeavored to slip back inside and close the door. But the constable on the right obviously had much experience in such futile defensive tactics. His size ten boot was swiftly inserted between the closing door and the jamb, whilst his colleague from the other side grappled with the would-be escaper. Surprisingly, the man did not struggle. He made no resistance even to handcuffs being slipped on him.

“Officer,” a cultivated, though strangely accented voice called from inside the tomb. “We are not criminals. There is no need to use force. We mean no harm.”

“Come out quietly and tell that to the Sergeant!” Smithers instructed, with satisfaction in his tone.

“I shall not resist, officer,” the voice replied, “but I have here something which your Sergeant must see.”

“Then bring it out.”

“Alas, officer, I cannot do that, nor can I leave it here without explaining how it may be safely handled.”

Smithers tensed. “Is it explosive?”

“All right, Smithers, I’ll deal with this.” MacAndrew had arrived, out of breath from his hasty descent of the tower and sprint across the churchyard. “I am Sergeant MacAndrew of Scotland Yard,” he announced loudly. “You are in the custody of Her Majesty’s Constabulary. Stay where you are and do not make any sudden moves. I shall come inside to see this thing.”

“Sir!” Smithers protested. “Is that wise? He might have a bomb.”

“In which case he will blow himself up along with me,” MacAndrew replied. “Does he sound to you like a madman determined on suicide?”

“No, sir, but…”

“Trust me,” MacAndrew replied. “It’s your excitable Latins and Slavs that go in for bombs. These men are Germans. They’re sensible chaps; just like us.” He patted the young detective on the shoulder and, opening the heavy door of the tomb, stepped into the ghostly blueness of its cave-like interior and pulled the door closed again behind him.

“I am grateful for your discretion, Sergeant.”

As MacAndrew’s eyes adjusted to the odd illumination a strange apparition took shape before him. A man clad in homespun clothing, not unlike the smock and gaitered tights in which Rosetti depicted Robin Hood, sat on a chair of glass within a shimmering translucent sphere, as though some Titan child had blown a single soap bubble and imprisoned a mortal within it. A constant succession of rainbow colors played across the surface of the orb, and from somewhere inside it came a hum like angry hive of bees.

Before MacAndrew could say a word, the man’s hand twitched and the sphere vanished, leaving nothing but two roughly carved seats on either side of a plain, brass-bound traveling trunk. One seat was empty. From the other, the man who had been within the sphere got slowly to his feet and smiled.

“Not a bomb, Sergeant,” he said. “Not any kind of weapon. But should even its existence be revealed to people of your time, the consequences would be devastating.”

***

“Well, I’ve heard some bonnie tales in my time,” MacAndrew laughed, “but this one takes the biscuit!” He leaned back against the old wooden settle, blew out smoke from his pipe and motioned to the landlord to bring refills for their glasses.

MacAndrew and Smithers had sent home the uniformed constables and escorted the two prisoners to the Windsor Castle pub, which lies in Camden Hill, between Church Street and Notting Hill Gate. It was not normal practice to entertain arrested persons, but MacAndrew had more than a suspicion that this was no normal pair of troublemakers. Since the men offered no resistance and seemed only too anxious to co-operate, his nose told him that the fewer persons who heard their promised explanation, the better.

Both prisoners wore greatcoats.

“Let me get this absolutely straight,” said Smithers, once again impressing his chief with his intellect. He would probe at any tale until he clearly established its truth or otherwise, worrying away at it like a terrier until he teased out every inconsistency. “You are time travelers from the distant future, whose vehicle, for want of a better word, has somehow broken down in our time whilst returning from the Dark Ages.”

“That is correct,” the older of the two men, whose English was the better, confirmed. “From the University of Köln. We are trying, as you might say, to make the Dark Ages rather less dark. Your King Offa of Mercia lived at the time of Charlemagne, and before they eventually went to war there was much trade and other exchanges between them.”

“So according to you, the reason that your Offa pennies look new is that they are new?”

“Well, yes and no. Chronologically they are over a thousand years old. In terms of their own intrinsic age, they were minted in the last five years. We posed as merchants from the Rhineland, because of course we know the archaeology of our home area very well. These coins were all paid over to us in return for our trade goods.”

“If you don’t have modern British currency because you did not expect to be here in our time,” said Smithers, “how do you explain the greatcoats and military caps?”

“Ah,” said the German shamefacedly. “I am very much afraid that we borrowed those, as you might say. Because of our clothes, at first we only dared go out in the dark. A few nights ago I came upon two soldiers in Kensington Gardens. They were busily—ah—engaged with two young ladies and had temporarily discarded their outer garments.”

“I can see that you might not have wanted to go around London dressed as eighth century merchants,” said MacAndrew, “but what I don’t understand is why you needed to go around London at all.”

“There was no choice,” the man replied. “We had to obtain materials from which we could make the replacement parts. You have seen the orb produced by our machinery; it is not a simple thing. I must also explain that we cannot just choose to travel through time whenever we wish. There are specific openings, and we must be precise.”

“Which explains the rush when you decided to take the omnibus?” Smithers looked at the other man, who nodded.

“Yes. One part I had found. My friend ze other, I hoped, but no.”

“And do you have the parts now?”

“Not quite,” The first man said. “That was the cause of the argument which unfortunately, as you told us, the priest overheard. We need a small amount of gold. We were arguing about whether we should steal it.”

“As you stole the coats?”

“Ah no! The coats we can leave behind when we go. The gold unfortunately we must take with us. There is a problem for us, you understand, of disturbing what we call the time line. In brief, we ask ourselves would something important have been done with the gold between this time and our own? Might we by taking it accidentally change history? Provided we can satisfy ourselves of this, if we have the gold we can leave this very night—in about an hour from now.”

“How much gold do you need?” MacAndrew inquired, nose twitching like a red setter once again on his favorite scent.

“Oh very small quantity. Twenty five grams, less than one of your ounces.”

“I see. And how many King Offa pennies could you spare in exchange for this gold?”

Smiling, the man patted the pocket of his greatcoat, then slipping his hand into his pocket he drew out a handful of coins and counted them. “I have eight,” he said.

“And I six,” said the other man.

“Will this do?” asked MacAndrew, taking out a gold sovereign from his own pocket and flipping it on to the table where it rattled to a stop.

***

“So we mustn’t talk about it, ever?” said Smithers, after they had confirmed that the men and their machine were indeed gone from within the tomb, although he and MacAndrew had watched the exterior closely after the two Germans entered.

The time travelers had warned the policemen not to open the door until five minutes had passed after they heard the humming noise intensify. Thereafter all trace of radiation, whatever that was, would be gone and the interior of the tomb as if the visitors had never been. MacAndrew and Smithers had done as they were asked. Afterwards Smithers’ flickering lantern revealed within the sepulcher only silent coffins in dark rows of burial niches. The Germans and their sphere were gone.

“You heard the man,” replied MacAndrew with a smile. “More to the point, Smithers, when I have disposed of these King Offa pennies, and you may be assured that I have far more skill in such work than did our unfortunate friend the conductor of the omnibus, you will not wish to explain publicly how you came by your share of the proceeds—fifty sovereigns.”

“That’s very generous, Sergeant, I must say. But isn’t it a little dishonest?”

“It would be dishonest if we were committing or concealing a crime,” said MacAndrew, tapping the side of his nose, “but if you can see a crime here you have keener eyes than mine, Smithers. There is no hoard, there’s been no theft; it isn’t treasure trove, since we did not find the coins, we bought them for a fair price; we shall even be able to return the greatcoats, having discovered them stuffed under a bush, as it were. I doubt the owners will wish to ask questions. No, Smithers, there’s no crime here.”

“Still and all, it’s sad to think of taking such a fantastic secret to our graves,” Smithers mused.

MacAndrew’s nose twitched and his mouth quirked into a wry smile. “I believe those penny dreadfuls of yours pay a fee to people who write stories for them. There’s nothing to stop you submitting a story to one of them, is there? No-one supposes what they publish is the truth!”