On the Night Train
THE Chicago express had been delayed by a freight wreck down the road, and was three hours late when it drew into North Pass. Even the long-houred summer sun, which was usually hanging above the western hills when the train went through, had grown tired of waiting, and had left in its place an ineffectual moon, whose light was all swallowed by the velvety dusk of earth and sky. Staring sharply out of the dusk were the open windows of the station and the flitting lanterns of the employees. Rough, businesslike voices gave orders or called back and forth with a heartiness that echoed against the surrounding silence, and heavily laden trucks rumbled across the platform. As they were unloaded the air became sweet with a scent of strawberries, that seemed like a part of the outlying night, it so vividly recalled dim, shadowy fields, with the dew softly distilling upon leaves and berries still warm from the sun.
Frazee leaned out of his window and looked around him. Familiar figures crossed and recrossed in front of the flaring station windows, or revealed themselves by a turn of the lantern light, but his own face was dark against the bright interior of the car, and no one noticed him. He was about to call out a greeting to the busy station agent, when a girl with a bunch of vouchers in her hand came across the platform among the lights and the moving figures, passed so close beneath his window that he could have reached out and touched her, and joined a little group of men who were standing near the car steps, talking. They turned toward her as she came up, and he heard her give some brief message or word of instruction. Then she came back under his window, and he caught a glimpse of her face. It was like the fragrance in the air, seeming to belong to the hushed vitality of the twilight.
“ Hello! ”
A hand clapped him on the shoulder, and he turned from the window to find a man he knew smiling down at him.
Commercial travelers are not easily surprised at meeting men they know. They shift in and out of one another’s lives like the colored fragments in a kaleidoscope, and if for a moment one helps another in completing a design, at the next turning of the glass they fall apart. Frazee stretched up his hand cordially.
“ Hello, Tarleton,” he said ; and then, ignoring the fact that they had not met before for a year, asked quickly: “Was that Selma Shepherd that crossed the platform just now? What’s she doing around the station ? ”
Tarleton dropped into the seat beside Frazee and settled himself comfortably, as the conductor’s “ All aboard! ” sounded through the car, and the station lights began to move slowly back along its windows. “ She’s helping her father, — what do you think of that ? ” he said.
“ Has the old man lost his money ? ” Frazee was watching the lights blink out behind them, while the train plunged into the flitting mystery through which travelers approach the future in the night, only to find themselves arriving at the present in the morning.
“ Not much,” Tarleton answered; “ but it’s a little like that story of the man that got rich and sent his daughter to school, and when he asked how she was getting on, and they told him she was doing well, only she lacked capacity, he said she should have one if it cost a million dollars. Selma wanted the old man to use a conscience in his business, and as he could n’t get hold of one any other way, she’s gone into the office to supply it. A queer outcome for a girl like that, isn’t it?”
“ How did she find out he did n’t have one?” Frazee asked. “She used to think ” — He let his sentence drop and stared at the frail, tired young moon, sinking low above the hills, but keeping faithfully abreast of the car windows.
Tarleton glanced at him sideways and smiled a little. “Yes,” he agreed, “ she used to think that’ papa ’ was the blooming Bayard among business men, and when she heard of any other fellow’s playing a sharp trick she pointed to her father as an example of how men could succeed without overreaching other people. It was pretty hard to listen to when we all knew what an old sharper he was.”
“ I never thought him a sharper exactly,” Frazee said. “I believe Ans Shepherd always meant to be an honest man ; if he had been offered an out-and-out steal, that he knew for a steal, there would have been somebody knocked over then and there. The trouble was with his standards. I’m not an idealist, but I should have wanted to wear gloves if I ’d been working with his standards, and it seems to me a high-class conscience like Selma’s would be a mighty unhandy thing for him in his business. How did it all come about ? ”
“It’s only just happened,” Tarleton answered. “ The pitiful look has n’t gone out of her face yet, — or else I imagine it, remembering that day. Sometimes I wish I did n’t have such a faculty for being in at the death.”
“That’s a queer thing,” Frazee commented. “ I believe you are always on hand when anything happens, and I ’m always round the corner, like that fellow Barrie tells about. What happened, anyway ? I used to know her pretty well once, years ago.”
“It came about through the two shipping associations,” Tarleton began. “You know how they manage things in North Pass, — the fruit growers club together and form a shipping association so as to get carload freight rates instead of having to pay by the hundred pounds ” —
“Oh, go along,” said Frazee ; “did n’t I work this region for six years ? ”
“ Well, in your day there was only one association, and Ans Shepherd always loaded the cars ; but this year some of the people grew dissatisfied, thought he charged too much for loading, and formed a new association with Henry Barnum to load at a lower rate. You remember Barnum, don’t you ? ”
“ Rather,” said Frazee, with a grimace. “ I had the pleasure of seeing him through an attack of jim-jams once. On the whole, I think he was the toughest, lowest little devil I ever came across on the road. I had him to thank — Well, it’s no use talking of that now.”
“ What was it? ” Tarleton asked curiously.
“Oh, nothing,” Frazee answered, smiling a little at the corners of a compressed mouth. “I was younger than I am now and more of a fool, and I did n’t feel as free as I do now to speak out my mind. I was sitting in the railroad hotel dining room in Middleville when the Cairo train pulled in for dinner, and who should come and drop down at the table with me but Barnum, — it was after I ’d seen him through his little snake dance. He seemed to think he ’d found a long-lost brother, and began telling me all he’d been up to since. It was n’t a pretty story, and it was n’t a prudent place to be telling how he managed to ‘ creep ’ extras into his expense account and systematically gouge his firm ; and the story of how he spent the extras, barely missing another attack, was n’t much more edifying. It disgusted me, and though I don’t usually count myself better than the next man, I must say I wanted to take that little beast and fling him out of the window ; the sight of him turned me against my dinner the way a fly would in my coffee; but you know how it is when you’ve been good to a fellow and he’s grateful to you ; it seems to bind you to be easy on him ; so I just sat and listened, laughing once in a while and putting in a word, instead of telling him to shut his mouth. I did suggest once that he’d better talk lower, or somebody would overhear, — and looking back afterward that warning seemed to put me on more of a level with him than anything else.”
“ Somebody was overhearing him ? ” Tarleton asked.
Frazee nodded. “ Selma Shepherd was sitting at the table just behind us. She had come on the same train with him, though on a different car, but I did n’t see her until we all got up. In fact, Barnum spoke to her before I noticed her. She ’d brought a little hand bag out of the train with her, and was carrying it back when he stepped up smirking and asked to take it on board for her. She held on to it, and the look she gave us was enough to freeze a crop ; I knew she’d heard every word and classed me with him. That was all, only we’d been friends before. Bah — how it feels to be despised! ”
Tarleton looked away from his companion and through one of the windows at the soft pure phantom of a world that hurried past. It looked like a place for peace, for mystery, even for great weird tragedies, but not for all this squalor which the hurrying trains bear to and fro, and which some men call life. “You never explained?” he said.
“ Explained ! ” answered Frazee cynically ; “ there was nothing to explain. She asked me no questions; I told her no lies. I could n’t go to her and say I was n’t as rotten as she thought when she expressed no interest in my state of preservation, — at least I was fool enough to think I could n’t. That was a long time ago. For a year or two I wanted to kill Barnum, and then I stopped caring and realized that he was too low to kill, anyway. I don’t see why the North Pass people ever put up that sort of vermin in opposition to old Ans Shepherd. At his meanest, Ans was a man.”
“ Oh, but Barnum reformed ; had n’t you heard ? He went to one of those ‘ cures,’ and came home to North Pass, where he was born, and married a poor foolish girl that had kept some sort of faith in him all that time. He started in at farming, and was having pretty hard luck at it when the shipping association split in two, somebody came forward with the idea that Henry deserved encouragement, and he got the job of loading for the opposition company. Old Ans nearly frothed at the mouth. He could n’t forget what Barnum had been, and he thought it was a reflection on his own honor and the honor of North Pass to have him in a position of trust, — particularly a position of trust that would deduct something from his own little harvest of shekels. You see, old Ans was great on talking about honor, — caught it from Selma after she came home from college. Well, the short of it was, he decided to run Barnum and the opposition out of the business. He simply sank money in the work, doing the loading for next to nothing and making the rates so low that after a week every darned kicker gave in, and transferred his shipments to the old company. Barnum was left swinging his heels on the station platform, sending out one half - filled car, perhaps, while the old man sent ten overloaded ones. Of course it could n’t go on, and presently Henry resigned, and the opposition went to pieces. I tell you, Ans just strutted round North Pass like a turkey gobbler that’s got his tail spread and is scraping his wings on the ground to mark off a road for other people to travel in.”
Frazee laughed. “I can see him,” he said.
Tarleton pointed out of the window. “We ’re coming to the old quarry. Do you remember the place ? ”
“ No, not specially,” answered Frazee.
“Well, just look. You’ll see why later,” Tarleton said. “ Notice the way that side track goes out to the edge of the bluff.”
The train had been rushing hoarsely up grade through a bit of forest. Now, at the summit of the grade, a clearing blurred past, and Frazee half saw and half remembered a spot where the foreground broke off abruptly and a group of derricks rose like evil omens against the dimly lighted distance and the breadth of pale sky where the moon was going down.
“ Did you see ? ” asked Tarleton, as the forest jumped forward and hid the view as if hiding a secret. “ The side track goes out to the edge of the bluff so that the stones from the quarry below can be hoisted and laid right on the flats. They only work there in winter when there’s nothing else going on. When it ’s deserted it ’s a creepy looking place even by daylight, and if the wind had been the right way you ’d have smelled twenty carloads of strawberries fermenting at the bottom of the bluff.”
“Twenty carloads of strawberries! How did they get there ? ” Frazee cried, involuntarily glancing out of the window again, as if the quarry were not already far behind.
“ Everybody knows and nobody can bring any proof. Barnum did it, of course, to get even with old Ans.”
“ But how ? ” Frazee asked again.
“ There was only one way it could be done. One night, a few days after Barnum resigned, the fruit train was pulling up that grade when she was boarded by a masked gang that bound all the train men, hands and feet, and put them off at the top of the hill, switched the train on to the siding, set her to backing toward the bluff, and skipped out into the woods. There was n’t a thing about one of them that the train men recognized, and so far nobody has found a clue. It must have been a strange thing to see that train backing off through the dark to the edge of the bluff and crashing over, — like somebody committing suicide. Her boiler burst and the cars took fire, and there was complete wreck and ruin down there. Naturally it was n’t long before the station at Elkdale got nervous because the train was so late, and wired to find out about her. Then there was excitement. A hand car set out at once to find what had happened to her after she left North Pass, and they wired to Middleville to get a wrecking train ready, but it was never called out, for the track was as clean as a whistle, and there was n’t much worth picking up at the bottom of the bluff, — just the biggest mess of half-cooked strawberry jam that mortal eyes ever looked at, mixed with battered iron and charred wood. I happened to be at Elkdale with nothing better to do, so I volunteered to come out on the hand car, and if you ’ll believe me I smelled that wreck half a mile away. The night was perfectly still and black as tar, and we were working those handle bars in silence, all of us feeling a sort of suspense, when sniff! every man caught the smell of strawberries. We straightened up and the car ran itself for a minute, while we all smelled again to make sure. Then the boss said, ‘ Boys, she’s smashed ! ’ and we fell to, harder than before. You can’t tell the surprise it gave us when we found the train men lying up safe and sound at the side of the track, and the track clear, — only that warm, rich smell all through the dark, and the men’s story, and the smouldering mess at the foot of the bluff. At first it was a relief to think that no lives were lost, and then the dastardly meanness of destroying so much property for nothing came over us. Why, it was n’t North Pass alone that suffered ; there were ten carloads from stations down the line.”
“ That’s the strangest story I ever heard,” Frazee said slowly. “ Are you sure there was nothing else to account for it, —nothing but Barnum’s spite ? ”
“ Nothing else in the world. There was such an absence of any other possibility that no one can imagine who helped him, and that makes it all the harder to get hold of the plot. The company has detectives down there and has offered a reward, and Ans has offered a reward himself. I suppose somebody will turn state’s evidence in time, but for the present there’s not a straw in the wind to tell tales. It’s puzzling where the men come from to do work like that, — and objectless, too, — but they seem to be always on hand when they ’re needed.”
“ I can hardly believe it was Barnum,” said Frazee. “ I think it must have been some sort of anarchist plot. Barnum would n’t have had the nerve.”
“ If you’d seen him the next few days you would have believed it,” Tarleton declared. “He paraded the village as large as life, and everybody noticed the look in his eyes, and his talk. Why, he as good as told people, ‘ I ’m even with you all, now, and you can’t prove it on me,’ — only he was careful not to say it in words that could be turned against him. He was drinking, too, not enough to tangle his wits, but just enough to make him assertive. That was why he dared speak out to Selma.”
“ Speak — out — to Selma ? ”
“ Yes, it was two days after the wreck. She had come down to the station on some errand, all dressed in white, — too white to touch, just as she always looked, — and Barnum swaggered up into her face and pulled off his hat and bowed. She stared straight through him, her face getting stiff, and tried to walk by, but he stepped in front of her again. I saw it all across the platform. I was in the old man’s office ; I often did my writing there ” —
“ Never mind where you were,” Frazee interrupted ; “ tell what happened.”
“ That’s what I ’m coming to,” Tarleton answered, settling himself as a man will if he likes to talk and has no intention of doing injustice to his story. Frazee leaned forward, one hand tapping lightly on the window ledge to make his impatience seem more trivial, but with a stress of attention and urgency in his face.
“ He stepped right in front of her again,” Tarleton went on, “ and she was too proud to try a second time to pass him, so she stood still and waited, the way a person that loathes snakes but is n’t afraid of ’em stands back to let one crawl across the path. I suppose it was that look of holding her skirts aside that maddened him, for after a minute he burst out telling her she’d cut him before and she’d not cut him again, and she needn’t think it would stain her to touch him, nor dishonor her to throw him a word like she would to the dirtiest dog on the street. ' If I’m low, it’s your father made me so,’ he told her, ' and I can’t be as low as you are, for there’s none of his damned blood in my veins.’ She drew back quick, as if he’d struck her, and a lot of men rushed up and got hold of him and tried to pull him away while she came over toward the office. The old man had been up the street, and was just coming on to the platform. He did n’t hear, but he saw her face and hurried to meet her, and they were just coming into the office where I was writing away for dear life, just as if I’d heard nothing, when Barnum broke away from the men and came up behind them, pouring out a stream of abuse, and taunting the old man with every shady transaction he’d ever been connected with. Old Shepherd pushed Selma into the office and turned round to order him off, but Barnum would n’t move. He stood his ground, daring Ans to deny a single dishonorable act he’d charged him with; and Ans saw a troop of men who knew the truth looking on and listening, so there was n’t a word he could say. He tried to treat it as a joke and face it down with pompousness, but it all flatted, and he came to a dead stop. For a minute you could almost hear the sun beating down on the platform, it was so still. Barnum stirred once or twice, trying to leer past the old man and catch Selma’s eye, but she stood inside the doorway, watching her father. I was watching her, and the way the light faded out of her face made me think of the quick way a cloud fades sometimes after sunset. All at once the telegraph began ticking over in the depot, clear across the platform. Ans gathered himself together as if somebody had spoken to him, and turned round to Selma and me, trying to laugh. She drew back a little from him, and begged him to say it was n’t true.
“ Her face upset him. I don’t believe he’d ever realized that anybody could take a question of business dealings in that way, and you could see how sorry he was for her, as if she was a little child that had to be disappointed. He told her to hush, that every man had his enemies, and there was nothing to feel badly about at all. She put out her hand, like a child pleading, — she was n’t used to having him refuse her things, — and asked him again to tell them all that it was n’t so. He shut the office door then, and I was shut inside with them. ' Selma,’ he said, 'I can’t say it’s not true. These things are what every business man does. Tarleton, here, will tell you so. They ’re part of the game.’ She did n’t turn to me, and I thanked the Lord for it. I’d have gone out if I could, but the old man stood right in front of the door and would n’t move. I don’t know if he thought Barnum would try to come in, or if he only wanted to keep me to help him out with her; but there he planted himself, and she drew back from him a little more, and stood with her bosom rising and falling, and her hands clenched. Great God! I wished she’d have screamed, instead of keeping so still. The old man kept looking at her face as if he could n’t look away, and a deathlike ash color settled over him. After a while he went closer to her and stretched his hand out as if he was half afraid, and touched her on the shoulder.
“‘What’s the matter, Selma ?’ he asked, and his voice was so shaky and scared it did n’t sound like his.
“ She gave a little cry and shrank away, sobbing out that she ’d always thought her father was an honest man. He just opened his mouth and shut it again, and began to shake all over; even his hard old face was broken and twitching as if he was going to cry, and, with every minute that he watched her huddled into a glimmery white heap on a bench, a year of vitality seemed to go out of him. If she’d been looking at him she ’d have seen him grow ten years older before her eyes.”
Tarleton paused, drawing a long breath.
“Well? ” questioned Frazee sharply.
Tarleton pointed out of the window into the dark. “ The little moon’s gone down,” he said irrelevantly. “ It kept up with us as long as it could, but now it’s tired out.”
Frazee gave a glance at the hovering, mysterious world shadow through which the train was rushing with its flaring lights. The windows of a distant house gleamed for a moment as if answering the signal of the gleaming train.
Tarleton did not notice his companion’s impatience. “ When you were quite a kid and first came on the road, did you ever fancy that every unknown lighted house you passed in the night might be the home of the girl you would love and marry some day ? ” he asked.
“ Save that for a moonlight ride with the girl,” Frazee advised, with a shrug. “ I want to know how Selma and the old man settled it.”
“ After we pass Elkdale,” said Tarleton, unmoved.
The train whistled its long, forlorn warning. One by one the lights of a straggling village flashed into the car windows and went out like matches in the wind ; the train slowed up beside another group of station buildings wrapped round by darkness more closely than the first.
Both men jumped up and went outside : Tarleton, because he hoped to find a man with whom he wished a minute’s talk; Frazee, because the car had become too cramped a place for him. If he sat still by the window he should watch every instant for Selma to pass beneath it, and she would not come.
Outside upon the platform he found the scent of strawberries again, filling the air, just as the memory of Selma filled his thoughts. All the days of his old sweet friendship with her had been in strawberry time, and, in the years that had gone by while he was trying to forget her, the unexpected whiff of strawberries along a city street had often brought back the past so vividly that when he looked around him at the pavements, and the hard brick walls, and the faces which he did not love, although the past faded away, as long as he could smell the strawberries he was filled with a vague, hopeless longing, — the Indian summer of pain. On the platform there was nothing to do but to think of such things, and wonder when the train would start.
Tarleton finished his interview, and came back to where Frazee stood watching the man beside the loaded truck pass the strawberry crates to the man in the express car door.
“ It’s about the last shipment of the season,” Tarleton said. “ It’s a pity that the sun never gets ’em fully soaked with sweetness until just as the crop is playing out. Do you notice the smell of ’em ? It’s good enough in itself to eat with sugar and cream.”
“ I’m going back into the car,” Frazee answered. “ They ’re through loading.”
“ I bet you that a honeybee could follow this train through the dark by the smell,” Tarleton suggested argumentatively, as they took their seats. “ It must stream out for miles behind us, spreading thinner and thinner like the tail of a comet.”
Frazee smiled more to himself than to Tarleton. “ I think it does,” he agreed. “ Now finish up about Selma and her father.”
Tarleton stretched himself lazily, looking through half-closed eyes, as if summoning back the picture he had allowed to vanish. “ I can’t say that I ever liked Selma Shepherd,” he began finally. “ I ’m not one of the fellows that like a girl who acts as if she was standing on a shining white cloud, looking down at him, but nobody could help admiring some things about her. The old man had had her educated way up above his comprehension, and yet she never let it put a barrier between them. She not only loved him, she was proud of him because he had picked himself up out of the dust when he was a friendless kid, and had made something of himself. She was n’t even ashamed of his breaks in grammar or manners among her friends; she seemed to think there was no more discredit about it than if he had been a child. And it has to be said for the old man that he was generous with other people besides Selma. I suppose you ’re right, — he did n’t mean to be a sharper ; he just thought it was part of the game ; and after he’d got the money safely in his pocket, nobody was quicker than he to pull it out again if people were in trouble. Why, he was as warm-hearted ” —
Frazee gave an impatient groan. “ Don’t I know them both ? ” he asked. “ Can’t you go on ? ”
“ There’s scarcely anything more to tell,” Tarleton answered. “ By and by he went up quite close to her, and then was my chance to have left the office, but I forgot ; I was holding my breath the way he was, waiting for her to look up. If he’d murdered a man he would n’t have needed much more punishment, — it simply took his life to have her look away from him, crying over what he ’d done. I wondered which of them would speak first, for it could n’t go on that way, and finally the old man forced her name out, dull and harsh, like the first word a dumb man learns to speak. She lifted her head and looked at him, the tears running down her face, and he reached out his hands, but still he could n’t find his speech, and his face quivered more and more, longing for the words to come and bring her back to him ; at last he said her name again ; she gave another sob at that and buried her face, but he dropped down beside her, crying as hard as she was, and caught her hand and said, ‘I — we — I can begin over again, Selma.’
“ She looked up, and when she saw that old, white-haired, broken man begging for a chance to start fresh, she stood a little while with her face growing different from what I’d ever seen it, and pretty soon she slipped close into his arms and said, ‘ Yes, we can begin over again ’ — I made a break then, and left the office.”
Frazee sat silent, staring at the night. It had grown so dark outside that there was nothing to be seen but groups of firefly sparks winging back from the engine.
After a moment Tarleton began again. “ Later in the afternoon the old man hunted me up. He said I ’d heard so much he wanted to tell me the end of it. Poor old boy, he turned mighty red over it, not because he was ashamed, but because he was so used to carrying things with a high hand. ‘ Selma’s coming into the office to work with me,’ he said. ‘ There’s lots of things I want to consult her about, and it will be handier for me to have her there. I — the fact is, Tarleton, I’m going to do things on a different basis after this, but I’m too used to my old ways to start into new ones without help.’ And then he asked me if I would n’t do what I could to make it easy for her down there among the boys. He said he knew some of them had a spite against her because she ’d always held herself so high. I spoke of dreading what Barnum might do, but the old man only set his jaw.”
Tarleton hesitated. The import of what he was about to tell came home to him, and he realized that the story which he had begun from the mere love of narration was a message which fate had put into his care. “ The old man thought there was n’t much more that Barnum could do,” he went on slowly. “ He said that Barnum had already nearly ruined Selma’s life by making her lose faith in the man she loved.”
Frazee rested his elbow against the window ledge and his head against his hand.
“ Did the old man say who it was ? ” he asked.
“ No,” Tarleton answered, “ he did n’t say. I ’d go back if I were you.”
Frazee nodded attentively and turned toward the window. He was thinking of the girl’s face in the dusk, with its look of hidden longing, and he wished that he had reached out and touched her as she passed. The longing in his own heart grew upon the hope which had been given it, and searched for some further token in the night.
The train rushed on, crossing bridges that reverberated solemnly, toiling up grades, hurrying down them, and hooting at the wagon roads which crossed its track. The lights of another village sparkled through the darkness, and Frazee sprang to his feet.
“ Good-by,” he said abruptly as the train slackened speed. “ I can catch the down passenger here in an hour.”
“ Good-by,” cried Tarleton. “ Good luck to you.”
They shook hands with a clasp that tingled afterward, and Frazee swung himself from the car step on to the platform.
The air was full of the scent of strawberries.
Mary Tracy Earle.