Traveling on the Branch

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

IT is only the same journey we have all taken, from country to city, but to-day I have resolved to have new eyes and to discover things. Just a commonplace day, and I am all alone, — will you come along ?

We all know the increased family tenderness incident to departure. The demonstration begins on the evening before, indeed, sometimes as early as noon. Up to that hour I am jeered and flouted like the rest, but when evening sets in, when my trunk is packed and perhaps already trundled out to the express wagon, then I begin to enjoy a specious self-importance. Even the brothers become gruffly tender, and the father and the females pleasantly solicitous. On that last night I have my favorite dishes, and eat of them with a relish of complacency; doubtless I am the favorite child, when I am going away.

But the next morning, — the impossibly early start, the family sleepy-eyed, the breakfast under-done, a key forgotten, the carriage late, everybody trying to remember not to be cross on the last morning, — for irritation is a luxury belonging only to long companionship, — a sudden great wave of homesickness engulfing me, — I won’t go after all, why should I ? Then a furious onslaught of embrace upon each, to have it all over as soon as possible. After all, I arrive at the station fifteen minutes too soon, and might better have been back at the house with them, — that is, with those of them who have n’t come to see me off. Those who have come, after some manful pacing of the platform, put me on the car, not knowing what else to do with me. Above the rattle of the milk cans we shout to one another smiling inanities such as at any other time we could not believe ourselves capable of conceiving. When we cannot hear ourselves speak, we bob and beam brightly at one another, — will the car never start ? At last it does, only to draw back with a jerk. It is the little pompadoured girl from the post-office who runs up, calling for the mailbag. We obligingly drop it out upon her, and she fishes for a letter which has changed its mind and will not go to-day. Meanwhile train and trainfull watch and wait, wondering whose the letter and what was the matter with it.

My car is divided by a partition in the middle, half a car for people, half a car for baggage, reminding us what an impersonal matter we persons are to a railroad thrusting upon us rudely man’s equality with his luggage. They will treat us better when we come nearer to civilization. This is but a branch, with fewer miles than letters in its pleasant-sounding name. When we get to the Junction and swing on to the Main Line things will be different.

Out of window it is a dull, rainy day, day of days to enjoy the subtleties of green: green of bush, green of tree, green of field, green of far-away hill. Keeping close to our course, low trees mark the meandering line of a river too small to see. Thrifty farms slide one after one past my window. The farmhouses are but so-so, but the barns are proud piles, and they stand, tall and impudent, always between the farmhouse and the view. From the farm windows eyes of tired women look out at us rushing by to unknown cities. It is never work, but loneliness, that brings that dull hunger to the eyes. Do I wonder that the country throngs to the city ? No, I myself should prefer the tenement, with its color and life and stir,—above all, its absorbing domestic drama playing every minute before one’s eyes.

Everywhere that I look out over field and hill, there are cows, cows, cows,— black and mottled, Holsteins and brown Jerseys. At every crossroad we stop and take on milkcans. A slow progress we make, but in this region it is my Lady Cow that rules the road, her times and seasons that regulate the timetable.

Across my vision slips by one field that arrests my attention. It is of corn, and it is weeded of all but buttercups. What æsthetic vagary on the part of the farmer, I wonder ? Now I turn from without the car to those within. Half the thirty passengers I know by sight and name, and have already greeted. They all know one another, and their voices, with their harsh nasal aow-ing, are heard in chat above the rattle of the car-wheels. As always on the Branch, one corner of the car is occupied by drummers. Why are drummers always fat? I never saw a thin one. I never observed the fare of the country hotel to be noticeably nutritious, yet these men, though spending their days among these hostelries, would appear to be the bestfed men in America.

Passengers on the Branch wear their best clothes on their backs, and carry the rest in telescopes. The women are overdressed, but they are betrayed by their finger-ends and their carriage and their belts. On other days they belong to pot and kettle, mop and broom. Whatever illusions may be preached, domestic labor is rarely becoming. Observe in noting costume that here on the Branch the belt line of ladies tips up in the front and down in the back. When we reach the Junction it will run around on the level, and when we touch the city it will have changed about, up in the back, down in the front. The women before me have hair that hangs in a straight fringe over their collars, being too straightly jerked up under their hats.

There are children aboard, of course, and babies in arms, and the children lop and flop about the seats, chew gum, and eat candy and large pale cookies. They torment their mothers as if such were their constant habit. How spoiled are the children of the rural! The babies are pudgy, dingy mites, strictly home-made from tip to toe, cap, coat, and bootlet. In cities, the babies of the poor are always ready-made.

On we rumble and rattle, slowly ever. Once we stop, so it appears, merely to allow a thirsty trainman to get out and pump himself a drink. There is no flashing by of scenery we would fain arrest; we have plenty of time to see it all. Though it is not yet August, the goldenrod is beginning to dust the fencerows with yellow, presaging September and what we country folk aptly call “the fall of the year.” Sometimes a hopyard fills all my window; and I never see one without a shiver at Kipling’s metaphor, where the vision of the swaths of men suddenly shot down in the ranks is compared with the opening and closing of these leafy vistas as a train passes them by.

From time to time, on far hill farms, one sees wee plots enclosed, sentinel grave-stones keeping watch. Family burial plots belong to generations before ours, when the living and the dead seemed to desire to dwell close together. In these days, when farms change hands so often, a farmer may know nothing of the dead he shelters, and in alien hands the little place of quiet falls to rapid decay. They do not care, these men and women foredone with farm toil, asleep now this long, long while in the only rest the farm has ever allowed them.

At last, after much inexplicable backing and shifting and snorting of our engine, many false stops, false starts, we come puffing into the Junction, and the car, passengers and baggage, empties itself out on the platform. A junction is a place where you always wait, whether you expect to or not; your train and your hopes always deferred without any explanation. At the Junction it is hot and crowded and dirty and dull. Through the sultry July morning, insistent as the shrilling of a locust, tick-ticks the telegraph wire. At the Junction a curious self-consciousness has attacked my fellow-travelers. Jovial and at ease before, they now talk not at all, or in low tones, suspicious of strange listeners. Their manner has assumed that studied indifference, overlying intensity of observation, which always betrays the stay-at-home when abroad. Your muchtraveled man or woman is not afraid of looking keen and curious. Among our provincial throng I note one exception, — one man actually in gloves, seated in a corner by himself, lost in a book.

Our country stations afford a good exhibition of one-man power. Anxious,perspiring, efficient, but none too civil, the porter, baggage agent, ticket agent, telegraph operator, and general dictator, five men in one, bustles about his several callings. Inevitably, if the traveler desires his services in one capacity, he is employed about some one of the other four; inevitably your particular demand will be number five on the list. You get nervous while you wait, and so does he; but somehow he always gets done in time. As my train draws out from the Junction, my last sight is the station-master shouting final directions as to freight, while he mops the brow of a mind relieved.