If fate had been different, I feel that I might have loved a railway station.
Even now, in spite of all, I still love the great terminals — South Station, with its spreading train-shed where wreaths of smoke festoon themselves at twilight high up in the shadows of the roof, and the Grand Central, that stunning compromise between a tabernacle and a department store. There the trains come in, each in its separate appointed groove, as in a bowling-alley. Each one is securely captured for you before you are expected to take it. Yes, in the great cities you can take a train. At a way-station, you must catch it.
The responsibility of catching my own train is just one straw too much. Experience has taught me that the most outlandish episodes of my life are fated to take place at the brink of the railway-track; not that I ever lose trains or take the wrong ones, but simply because in the tense air of a way-station my mentality is at its lowest ebb.
The events that have befallen me in these times of unbalance have proved to me two things about a station platform. In the first place, it is the ideal site for a spiritual débâcle. You do not need to court disaster there: the place naturally breeds it. The switchings and hootings of troubled freight trains, the cyclone of the express, the presence of rapid powerful things quite beyond your control, the haste, the crowd — all provide the makings of calamity.
And in the second place, I have learned that the fewer people you bring to see you off, the better your chances for a smooth retreat.
One wintry morning, for example, I had just settled myself in the coziest corner of the early train. The other passengers, evidently business men, were absorbed in their newspapers. Everything promised well. But outside on the platform, fate, unknown to me, was preparing a crisis. My sister, whom I had rashly allowed to see me off, suddenly remembered that she had my heavy coat over her arm, and ran back to give it to me. The train was about to start. Rushing up to the brakeman she gasped, ‘Are you going on this train? She left her coat.’
‘What’s she look like?’ inquired the gay young brakeman, grasping the coat and swinging gracefully on the step.
‘Brown hair, brown suit—’
‘What’s her first name?’
‘Margaret Olcott,’ wailed my sister; then, thinking that because he asked my first name he thought me a little girl, she added with a last desperate inspiration, ‘She’s twenty-nine years old.’
In marched the delighted brakeman, down through those ranks of travelingmen; and as he laid the coat in my astonished arms, he remarked in a clear baritone, ‘She said it was for Margaret Olcott, twenty-nine years old.’
Now did or did not that trainful of gentlemen think they knew my age? All the way to our destination somebody or other would give way to his memories and the mirth would break out afresh. Meanwhile I revolved in my mind the various happy things that I might have said to the merry brakeman. I might have told him that the coat was twenty-nine years old, I being older. But everybody knows how the unavailing afterthoughts press upon one. The point that concerns us here is the fact that at the critical moment, within the station confines, I was the prey of luckless circumstance.
Of all people whom I care to impress favorably, I suppose that my young brother just returned from France would qualify as chief. I was in process of catching a train one morning lately, and thought that he might possibly come down to see me off. Up and down the platform I paced, watching the distant crowds. Sure enough, the familiar uniform appeared at last in the subway. It walked like my brother, and the leather leggins were very like; but still I hesitated because I could not clearly see his face. Just then he turned and saw me, and flung up an arm to wave. At that, of course, I was sure, and flinging up my own arm into the air, I waved back. He began to shout something that I could not hear, and to apprize him of that fact, I took a firm hold of each ear, bent them out to the windward, flapped them briskly, and gave a sisterly grin. At that instant, I felt a firm hand on my arm, and heard the voice of my real brother beside me, inquiring what I thought I was doing. The stranger in the subway had been shouting and waving to friends of his own beyond me in the train. And on the heels of this event, to have to board the train myself and leave a garrulous brother at large in town to spread the story among our delighted friends, unchecked — it was almost more than I could bear.
But the most poignant regret of all comes when one has, in one’s irresponsible state, wounded or affrighted the innocent bystander. We were just boarding the train one night after a very stirring lecture by Professor George Herbert Palmer. We were all enthusiastic, but I was holding forth. The gentleman behind us in the train put down his newspaper and seemed to be listening. I lowered my voice, but I still felt his observing eye upon me. Suddenly he leaned forward and asked in cordial tones, ‘I beg pardon, but is this Dorothea Slade?’
The spell of the train-shed was upon me; I never dreamed that he thought I was Dorothea Slade; I thought that he was asking if it was she whom we were discussing. And so I replied graciously, ‘No, this is George Herbert Palmer,’ and went on conversing with my friends. Not until we were well beyond the precincts of the station did I gather what it was that my friends were laughing about, or why the courtly gentleman behind us had gone back so precipitately to the newspaper.
But a protracted catalogue of such incidents could only give the reader pain. Whether the essence of the spirit of way-stations is centred in the steam, the tracks, or the soft coal, I do not know. I think it is a blend, and elemental in effect, for I know that children feel it. I was left one day for a moment alone on a platform with two small Dutch-cut children, the youngest in a little leather harness of which his mother handed me the reins while she went for tickets. The sinister influence of the way-station was all about us, and all my resources were as nothing for antidotes against that spell. Off went the eldest child, hopping toward the tracks, and at the same moment the little boy in his leather harness curled up both fat legs and hung suspended from my hand, rotating rapidly in the air. To be seen in public with a bevy of borrowed children is no trial; it may even be an appealing picture if the grouping is right. But there should be a Madonna element about it. Ideally the child should nestle. To be found on a station platform, with one nimble infant in full retreat, obviously escaping your hated presence, and with another, unable to get away, hanging head downward at the end of a leather thong — this sort of thing is absolutely in keeping with the spirit of the way-station.
In fact, if I were to design a crest for way-stations, it should have smoke sable, with an accommodation train passant, and underneath, no motto at all; for no dead language could do justice to the soul of the way-station, and its native language is profane.