Next> | <Prev | End
A Day's Railroading
HAPPINESS has commonly a good appetite; and the thought of the fortunately ended adventures of the night, the fresh morning air, and the content of their own hearts, gifted our friends, by the time the boat reached Albany, with a wholesome hunger, so that they debated with spirit the question of breakfast and the best place of breakfasting in a city which neither of them knew, save in the most fugitive and sketchy way.
They decided, at last, in view of the early departure of the train, and the probability that they would be more hurried at a hotel, to breakfast at the station, and thither they went and took places at one of the many tables within, where they seemed to have been expected only by the flies. The waitress plainly had not looked for them, and for a time found their presence so incredible that she would not acknowledge the rattling that Basil was obliged to make on his glass. Then it appeared that the cook would not believe in them, and he did not send them till they were quite faint the peppery and muddy draught which impudently affected to be coffee, the oily slices of fugacious potatoes slipping about in their shallow dish and skilfully evading pursuit, the pieces of beef that simulated steak, the hot, greasy biscuit, steaming evilly up into the face when opened, and then soddening into masses of condensed dyspepsia.
The wedding-journeyers looked at each other with eyes of sad amaze. They bowed themselves for a moment to the viands, and then by an equal impulse refrained. They were sufficiently young, they were happy, they were hungry: nature is great and strong, but art is greater, and before these triumphs of the cook at the Albany depot appetite succumbed. By a terrible tour de force they swallowed the fierce and turbid liquor in their cups, and then speculated fantastically upon the character and history of the materials of that breakfast.
Presently Isabel paused, played a little with her knife, and, after a moment, looked up at her husband with an arch regard and said: "I was just thinking of a small station somewhere in the South of France where our train once stopped for breakfast. I remember the freshness and brightness of everything on the little tables,--the plates, the napkins, the gleaming half-bottles of wine. They seemed to have been preparing that breakfast for us from the beginning of time, and we were hardly seated before they served us with great cups of café-au-lait, and the sweetest rolls and butter; then a delicate cutlet, with an unspeakable gravy, and potatoes--such potatoes! Dear me, how little I ate of it! I wish, for once, I'd had your appetite, Basil; I do indeed."
She ended with a heartless laugh, in which, despite the tragical contrast her words had suggested, Basil finally joined. So much amusement had probably never been got before out of the misery inflicted in that place; but their lightness did not at all commend them. The waitress had not liked it from the first, and had served them with reluctance; and the proprietor did not like it, and kept his eye upon them as if he believed them about to escape without payment. Here, then, they had enforced a great fact of travelling,--that people who serve the public are kindly and pleasant in proportion as they serve it well. The unjust and the inefficient have always that consciousness of evil which will not let a man forgive his victim, or like him to be cheerful.
Our friends, however, did not heat themselves over the fact. There was already such heat from without, even at eight o'clock in the morning, that they chose to be as cool as possible in mind, and they placidly took their places in the train, which had been made up for departure. They had deliberately rejected the notion of a drawing-room car as affording a less varied prospect of humanity, and as being less in the spirit of ordinary American travel. Now, in reward, they found themselves quite comfortable in the common passenger-car, and disposed to view the scenery, into which they struck an hour after leaving the city, with much complacency. There was sufficient draught through the open window to make the heat tolerable, and the great brooding warmth gave to the landscape the charm which it alone can impart. It is a landscape that I greatly love for its mild beauty and tranquil picturesqueness, and it is in honor of our friends that I say they enjoyed it. There are nowhere any considerable hills, but everywhere generous slopes and pleasant hollows and the wide meadows of a grazing country, with the pretty brown Mohawk River rippling down through all, and at frequent intervals the life of the canal, now near, now far away, with the lazy boats that seem not to stir, and the horses that the train passes with a whirl, and leaves slowly stepping forward and swiftly slipping backward. There are farms that had once, or still have, the romance to them of being Dutch farms,--if there is any romance in that,--and one conjectures a Dutch thrift in their waving grass and grain.Spaces of woodland here and there dapple the slopes, and the cosy red farm-houses repose by the side of their capacious red barns. Truly, there is no ground on which to defend the idleness, and yet as the train strives furiously onward amid these scenes of fertility and abundance, I like in fancy to loiter behind it, and to saunter at will up and down the landscape. I stop at the farm-yard gates, and sit upon the porches or thresholds, and am served with cups of buttermilk by old Dutch ladies who have done their morning's work and have leisure to be knitting or sewing; or if there are no old ladies, with decent caps upon their gray hair, then I do not complain if the drink is brought me by some red-cheeked, comely young girl, out of Washington Irving's pages, with no cap on her golden braids, who mirrors my diffidence, and takes an attitude of pretty awkwardness while she waits till I have done drinking. In the same easily contented spirit as I lounge through the barn-yard, if I find the old hens gone about their family affairs, I do not mind a meadow-lark's singing in the top of the elm-tree beside the pump. In these excursions the watch-dogs know me for a harmless person, and will not open their eyes as they lie coiled up in the sun before the gate. At all the places, I have the people keep bees, and, in the garden full of worthy potherbs, such idlers in the vegetable world as hollyhocks and larkspurs and four-o'clocks, near a great bed in which the asparagus has gone to sleep for the season with a dream of delicate spray hanging over it. I walk unmolested through the farmer's tall grass, and ride with him upon the perilous seat of his voluble mowing-machine, and learn to my heart's content that his name begins with Van, and that his family has owned that farm ever since the days of the Patroon; which I dare say is not true. Then I fall asleep in a corner of the hay-field, and wake up on the tow-path of the canal beside that wonderfully lean horse, whose bones you cannot count only because they are so many. He never wakes up, but with a faltering under lip and half-shut eyes hobbles stiffly on, unconscious of his anatomical interest. The captain hospitably asks me on board, with a twist of the rudder swinging the stern of the boat up to the path, so that I can step on. She is laden with flour from the valley of the Genesee, and may have started on her voyage shortly after the canal was made. She is succinctly manned by the captain, the driver, and the cook, a fiery-haired lady of imperfect temper; and the cabin, which I explore, is plainly furnished with a cook-stove and a flask of whiskey. Nothing but profane language is allowed on board; and so, in a life of wicked jollity and ease, we glide imperceptibly down the canal, unvexed by the far-off future of arrival.
Such, I say, are my own unambitious mental pastimes, but I am aware that less superficial spirits could not be satisfied with them, and I do not pretend that my wedding-journeyers were so. They cast an absurd poetry over the landscape; they invited themselves to be reminded of passages of European travel by it; and they placed villas and castles and palaces upon all the eligible building-sites. Ashamed of these devices, presently, Basil patriotically tried to reconstruct the Dutch and Indian past of the Mohawk Valley, but here he was foiled by the immense ignorance of his wife, who, as a true American woman, knew nothing of the history of her own country, and less than nothing of the barbarous regions beyond the borders of her native province. She proved a bewildering labyrinth of error concerning the events which Basil mentioned; and she had never even heard of the massacres by the French and Indians at Schenectady, which he in his boyhood had known so vividly that he was scalped every night in his dreams, and woke up in the morning expecting to see marks of the tomahawk on the headboard. So, failing at last to extract any sentiment from the scenes without, they turned their faces from the window, and looked about them for amusement within the car.
It was in all respects an ordinary carful of human beings, and it was perhaps the more worthy to be studied on that account. As in literature the true artist will shun the use even of real events if they are of an improbable character, so the sincere observer of man will not desire to look upon his heroic or occasional phases, but will seek him in his habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness. To me, at any rate, he is at such times very precious; and I never perceive him to be so much a man and a brother as when I feel the pressure of his vast, natural, unaffected dulness. Then I am able to enter confidently into his life and inhabit there, to think his shallow and feeble thoughts, to be moved by his dumb, stupid desires, to be dimly illumined by his stinted inspirations, to share his foolish prejudices, to practise his obtuse selfishness. Yes, it is a very amusing world, if you do not refuse to be amused; and our friends were very willing to be entertained.They delighted in the precise, thick-fingered old ladies who bought sweet apples of the boys come aboard with baskets, and who were so long in finding the right change, that our travellers, leaping in thought with the boys from the moving train, felt that they did so at the peril of their lives. Then they were interested in people who went out and found their friends waiting for them, or else did not find them, and wandered disconsolately up and down before the country stations, carpet-bag in hand; in women who came aboard, and were awkwardly shaken hands with or sheepishly kissed by those who hastily got seats for them, and placed their bags or their babies in their laps, and turned for a nod at the door; in young ladies who were seen to places by young men (the latter seemed not to care if the train did go off with them), and then threw up their windows and talked with girl-friends on the platform without, till the train began to move, and at last turned with gleaming eyes and moist red lips, and panted hard in the excitement of thinking about it, and could not calm themselves to the dull level of the travel around them; in the conductor, coldly and inaccessibly vigilant, as he went his rounds, reaching blindly for the tickets with one hand while he bent his head from time to time, and listened with a faint, sarcastic smile to the questions of passengers who supposed they were going to get some information out of him; in the train-boy, who passed through on his many errands with prize-candies, gum-drops, pop-corn, papers and magazines, and distributed books and the police journals with a blind impartiality, or a prodigious ignorance, or a supernatural perception of character in those who received them.
A through train from East to West presents some peculiar features as well as the traits common to all railway travel; and our friends decided that this was not a very well-dressed company, and would contrast with the people on an express-trainbetween Boston and New York to no better advantage than these would show beside the average passengers between London and Paris. And it seems true that on a westering line, the blacking fades gradually from the boots, the hat softens and sinks, the coat loses its rigor of cut, and the whole person lounges into increasing informality of costume. I speak of the undressful sex alone: woman, wherever she is, appears in the last attainable effects of fashion, which are now all but telegraphic and universal. But most of the passengers here were men, and they were plainly of the free-and-easy West rather than the dapper East. They wore faces thoughtful with the problem of buying cheap and selling dear, and they could be known by their silence from the loquacious acquaintance-making way-travellers. In these, the mere coming aboard seemed to beget an aggressively confidential mood. Perhaps they clutched recklessly at any means of relieving their ennui; or they felt that they might here indulge safely in the pleasures of autobiography, so dear to all of us; or else, in view of the many possible catastrophes, they desired to leave some little memory of themselves behind. At any rate, whenever the train stopped, the wedding-journeyers caught fragments of the personal histories of their fellow-passengers which had been rehearsing to those that sat next the narrators.It was no more than fair that these should somewhat magnify themselves, and put the best complexion on their actions and the worst upon their sufferings; that they should all appear the luckiest or the unluckiest, the healthiest or the sickest, people that ever were, and should all have made or lost the most money. There was a prevailing desire among them to make out that they came from or were going to some very large place; and our friends fancied an actual mortification in the face of a modest gentleman who got out at Penelope (or some other insignificant classical station, in the ancient Greek and Roman part of New York State), after having listened to the life of a somewhat rustic-looking person who had described himself as belonging near New York City.
Basil also found diversion in the tender couples, who publicly comported themselves as if in a sylvan solitude, and, as it had been on the bank of some umbrageous stream, far from the ken of envious or unsympathetic eyes, reclined upon each other's shoulders and slept; but Isabel declared that this behaviour was perfectly indecent. She granted, of course, that they were foolish, innocent people, who meant no offence, and did not feel guilty of an impropriety, but she said that this sort of thing was a national reproach. If it were merely rustic lovers, she should not care so much, but you saw people who ought to know better, well-dressed, stylish people, flaunting theirdevotion in the face of the world, and going to sleep on each other's shoulders on every railroad train. It was outrageous, it was scandalous, it was really infamous. Before she would allow herself to do such a thing she would--well, she hardly knew what she would not do; she would have a divorce, at any rate. She wondered that Basil could laugh at it; and he would make her hate him if he kept on.
From the seat behind their own they were now made listeners to the history of a ten weeks' typhoidfever, from the moment when the narrator noticed that he had not felt very well for a day or two back, and all at once a kind of shiver took him, till he lay fourteen days perfectly insensible, and could eat nothing but a little pounded ice; and his wife--a small woman, too--used to lift him back and forth between the bed and sofa like a feather, and the neighbors did not know half the time whether he was dead or alive. This history, from which not the smallest particular or the least significant symptom of the case was omitted, occupied an hour in recital, and was told as it seemed for the entertainment of one who had been five minutes before it began a stranger to the historian.
At last the train came to a stand, and Isabel wailed forth in accents of desperation the words, "Oh, disgusting!" The monotony of the narrative in the seat behind, fatally combining with the heat of the day, had lulled her into slumbers from which she awoke at the stopping of the train, to find her head resting tenderly upon her husband's shoulder.
She confronted his merriment with eyes of mournful rebuke; but as she could not find him, by the harshest construction, in the least to blame, she was silent.
"Never mind, dear, never mind," he coaxed, "you were really not responsible. It was fatigue,destiny, the spite of fortune--whatever you like. In the case of the others, whom you despise so justly, I dare say it is sheer, disgraceful affection. But see that ravishing placard, swinging from the roof: 'This train stops twenty minutes for dinner at Utica.' In a few minutes more we shall be at Utica. If they have anything edible there, it shall never contract my powers. I could dine at the Albany station, even."
In a little while they found themselves in an airy, comfortable dining-room, eating a dinner, which it seemed to them France in the flush of her prosperity need not have blushed to serve; for if it wanted a little in the last graces of art, it redeemed itself in abundance, variety, and wholesomeness. At the elbow of every famishing passenger stood a beneficent, coal-black glossy fairy in a white linen apron and jacket, serving him with that alacrity and kindliness and grace which make the negro waiter the master, not the slave of his calling, which disenthral it of servility, and constitute him your eager host, not your menial, for the moment. From table to table passed a calming influence in the person of the proprietor, who, as he took his richly earned money, checked the rising fears of the guests by repeated proclamations that there was plenty of time, and that he would give them due warning before the train started. Those who had flocked out of the cars, to prey with beak and claw, as the vulture-like fashion is, upon everything in reach, remained to eat like Christians; and even a poor, scantily-Englished Frenchman, who wasted half his time in trying to ask how long the cars stopped and in looking at his watch, made a good dinner in spite of himself.
"O Basil, Basil!" cried Isabel, when the train was again in motion, "have we really dined once more? It seems too good to be true. Cleanliness, plenty, wholesomeness, civility! Yes, as you say, they cannot be civil where they are not just; honesty and courtesy go together; and wherever they give you outrageous things to eat, they add indigestible insults. Basil, dear, don't be jealous; I shall never meet him again; but I'm in love with that black waiter at our table. I never saw such perfect manners, such a winning and affectionate politeness. He made me feel that every mouthful I ate was a personal favor to him. What a complete gentleman! There ought never to be a white waiter. None but negroes are able to render their service a pleasure and distinction to you."
So they prattled on, doing, in their eagerness to be satisfied, a homage perhaps beyond its desert to the good dinner and the decent service of it. But here they erred in the right direction, and I find nothing more admirable in their behaviour throughout a wedding journey which certainly had its trials, than their willingness to make the very best of whatever would suffer itself to be made anything at all of. They celebrated its pleasures with magnanimous excess, they passed over its griefs with a wise forbearance. That which they found the most difficult of management was the want of incident for the most part of the time; and I who write their history might also sink under it, but that I am supported by the fact that it is so typical in this respect. I even imagine that ideal reader for whom one writes as yawning over these barren details with the life-like weariness of an actual travelling companion of theirs. Their own silence often sufficed my wedded lovers, or then, when there was absolutely nothing to engage them, they fell back upon the story of their love, which they were never tired of hearing as they severally knew it. Let it not be a reproach to human nature or to me if I say that there was something in the comfort of having well dined which now touched the springs of sentiment with magical effect, and that they had never so rejoiced in these tender reminiscences.
They had planned to stop over at Rochester till the morrow, that they might arrive at Niagara by daylight, and at Utica they had suddenly resolved to make the rest of the day's journey in a drawing-room car. The change gave them an added reason for content; and they realized how much they had previously sacrificed to the idea of travelling in the most American manner, without achieving it after all, for this seemed a touch of Americanism beyond the old-fashioned car. They reclined in luxury upon the easy-cushioned, revolving chairs; they surveyed with infinite satisfaction the elegance of the flying-parlor in which they sat, or turned their contented regard through the broad plate-glass windows upon the landscape without. They said that none but Americans or enchanted princes in the Arabian Nights ever travelled in such state; and when the stewards of the car came round successively with tropical fruits, ice-creams, and claret punches, they felt a heightened assurance that they were either enchanted princes--or Americans. There were more ladies and more fashion than in the other cars; and prettily dressed children played about on the carpet; but the general appearance of the passengers hardly suggested greater wealth than elsewhere; and they were plainly in that car because they were of the American race, which finds nothing too good for it that its money can buy.