THE line of Pullmans was so long that the engine stuck out of the train shed like a kid growing out of his clothes. Passengers, hurrying down the platform, were negligible figures thrown into momentary cold relief against the warm lights of the station far at the other end. Mason stood beside the cab with his torch on the step beside him; a bitter wind blew in off the lake and tore at the yellow paper in his hand.
He read it again, by the jaundiced light from the torch. That was a hell of a Christmas present they’d handed him at the roundhouse.
‘File complete report regarding 45 minutes delay No. 9 between Oakton and Grant Street terminal this A. M.’
Mason spat neatly between the engine wheels. So Mike Lynch wanted a complete report, did he? Well, she’s leaking badly, the two superheater flues are squirting streams as big as your finger almost to the fire door, the main rod is pounding like a drop forge, the piston packing is shot, and the front end is blowing so badly you can’t see past the cab. Forty-five minutes late! It was a wonder the old mill had n’t fallen apart. There she stood, starting out on her return trip without a thing done. They’d hardly cleaned her fire. A fast schedule and a heavy train — hell of a Christmas present.
He folded the yellow sheet and stuck it into the watch pocket of his overalls. It was close to leaving time. Foley had her hot, and the conductor, Gleason, was coming down the platform with the orders. Mason watched him impersonally as he advanced through the dirty light of the train shed, his blue uniform buttoned taut across his protuberant belly, his walk that reminded the engineer somehow of a trained seal. He was a pompous guy, but Mason did n’t mind it. Maybe it was the uniform that made conductors that way. Or maybe pompous guys always got to be conductors. What the hell — it did n’t matter. ...
Gleason handed him the orders, and he read them aloud rapidly. ‘Reduce speed to ten miles over soft spot in track one half mile north of Morgan Avenue viaduct —‘
Gleason asked how things were.
‘Could n’t be worse,’ Mason said. He had the habit of quiet speaking, no matter what the import of his words. ‘They have n’t done a damn thing to her.’
Gleason said, ‘Tck, tek,’ like an old lady, and they stood looking at each other for a moment. The conductor’s face was pale and rather doughy in the torch light. Mason’s looked tough and the color of rust, with a thin, ironic mouth under the white moustache.
He picked up the torch and put one foot on the step.
Gleason said, ‘Well, hope we don’t have any trouble,’ in a kind of whinny.
The engineer raised one hand in a half-satirical salute, and Gleason started back down the line. A porter was yelling, ‘A-all aboard!’ far down at the other end. Mason hung on to the grab iron for an instant, seeing and yet not seeing the people dribbling out of the coaches here and there — and then he climbed into the cab.
Foley was standing on the deck, sweating like a horse. There was a black smear of coal dust across his forehead already, where he had wiped it with one of his gloves. Mason handed him the orders and climbed on to the seat box. He was glad Foley was firing; the kid knew his job. Fourteen months in the black gang of a battleship had taken care of that. There was between them that deep and unspoken respect which exists between men who perform their duties in a workmanlike manner.
The engineer slid open the window and looked back. Far down the train he saw Gleason’s lantern wave. He turned on the seat box, cracked the throttle, watching the ground outside as he did it. The cindery siding moved slowly backwards. When the slack between the cars had run out and the engine began to pull, he opened the throttle still more, giving it a couple of jerks. She slipped. He gave her a little sand, closed the throttle, jerked it open again. The wheels spun. He closed the throttle, pulled back the reverse lever, and, still watching the ground, slowly backed up the slack. He could feel it run back — a matter of two or three feet — and he threw the reverse lever ahead, jerked the throttle once more, and gave her the sand. This time they started — with a little jolt. Gleason would complain about that, but he’d got them rolling anyway.
He watched for a minute, closing and opening the throttle as she started slipping, using the sand, till they were under way. Foley cut down the injector, the water just showing in the bottom of the glass. He craned forward, watching it intently for a moment. They were out of the shed now, rattling over the switches and picking up speed. At last she had got into her stride.
Foley stepped across the cab and handed Mason the orders. He glanced at the steam gauge: it had dropped back to 160, so he put in a fire, opening the door with one hand while the other drove the scoop into the coal — throwing it on, clanging the door shut, going through it all several times, each motion dovetailing the next with beautiful precision. The asbestos shield was smoking on his overalls; his face looked young and hard in the white light from the fire door. He thrust the scoop back into the coal and looked at the steam again. It showed 180 now. The kid climbed up to his seat box and looked forward at the heavy black column of smoke piling up from the stack. There was a grim contentment in his face.
Mason sat watching the outside from the right-hand seat. The city lights were scattering now; they were well on their way out of the terminal. The wind off the icy lake blew up through the deck and slashed at their feet like a knife. Both men had tied their overalls about their ankles with pieces of string, but it was cold anyway. That was the way it was in winter — your feet and legs froze while the rest of you sweated.
They called the signals back and forth automatically as they passed. Mason: ‘On the green,’ and Foley repeating, ‘On the green.’
Approaching the viaduct, Mason slowed down, and Foley yelled cheerfully across the cab: ‘Soft spot’s been there for three weeks now. Wonder if they’re ever gonna fix it — ’
The cab was full of steam. Foley’s face on the other side looked blurred, like a bad photograph. The main rod was pounding hard, with a marked, monotonous rhythm. Foley spoke of it as they pulled into the station at Morgan Avenue. He said a few words about mechanics in general, and Mason agreed without caring greatly. ‘Go on and fall apart,’ he said, addressing the engine as he climbed down. ‘God knows you don’t belong to me. . .‘
With the bottle-shaped torch in one hand and the oilcan in the other, he went deliberately along both sides of the engine, sticking the long nose of the can in here and there while the torch spilled oily yellow light on iron and cinders. A sharp, hard sleet was driving down from the north now. It stung the face and cut at the hands like a million tiny spear points. A couple of passengers hurried down the platform and scrambled on to the train, their collars turned up and their heads drawn in like turtles’. Mason climbed back into the cab and pulled out his watch.
‘Ten fifty-three,’ he said, looking back for Gleason’s signal to start. ‘On time.’
‘On time,’ Foley echoed, thrusting the scoop into the coal and wiping the sweat off his face as he leaned to look at the water glass.
Mason looked at him. His eyes were strained with the terrible heat and brightness, and the muscles stood out hard and tight on his bare neck. It was going to be a tough pull, with the old mill in the shape she was. The main rod was pounding harder as they got under way, and the steam was blowing back on to the cab windows, where it crystallized into an icy veil, enclosing the cab, shutting it in against the night.
The engineer felt the rustle of the paper in his pocket as he put his watch back, and it seemed that that slight contact was sufficient to bring before him the personality of the man whose name was scribbled at the bottom of the sheet. Mike Lynch — Mr. Lynch to you, Mason. He grinned sardonically, thinking back, step by step, through the years that had come between the present and the time when he had known Lynch well. Twenty-five years was a long time in a man’s life — long enough to prove what a man was, or at any rate what end he had in view. And Lynch had undeniably kept to the road he’d set his feet on, in those days when they were starting out together.
Mason remembered him very clearly, restless and harried, even then, by the devils that drive such men. He remembered his words as if they had been spoken only a moment before: ‘By God, I’m not going to be firing all my life.’ He had had an eye for the main chance from the beginning. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps — that was his idea. Only in practice it turned out to be more like climbing up on other men’s shoulders, clawing and pushing, edging in here for a little credit that belonged elsewhere, edging out there to avoid the onus for some mistake that could be shifted to somebody else. Even before ’ninety-eight, when Mason had gone to Cuba, he had often regaled himself quietly with the spectacle of Lynch being agreeable to the right people. When he came back, Lynch had already begun to ‘go up,’ as he himself put it — well on his way, the hand-shaking, boot-licking way to the top.
Mason leaned closer to the ice-covered window, his eyes narrowing with the necessity for piercing its opacity, for establishing some contact with the intense darkness outside. He could hear the main rod now as if a gigantic hand were hitting it with a sledgehammer, as desperately ominous in import as was the constant back rush of steam and sleet — but it all seemed somehow inevitable, a thing which he had known and anticipated all his life, and his brief resentment against the persons and the forces responsible for it seemed to have flattened out, subsided into a wide, impersonal, all-embracing disillusionment which was the warp of his own being. He was aware of Foley’s unceasing rhythm of movement, of the locomotive cutting like a comet through an utterly still and static universe, of the incessant spill of steam and scatter of ice upon the windows and the savage bite of wind about his ankles — but it was all something which had existed since the beginning of time, part of a large futility which he could regard dispassionately and without active rancor. His mind dropped back to the past again, viewing himself objectively in various circumstances, and it struck him forcibly that he had always been in the nature of a spectator, looking on at other men’s striving without taking sides or casting his lot on the issues which meant life or death to them.
There had been the day at Santiago, with the sun lying like a dead weight upon the water and holding the ship in a dazzling pall of sheer, impenetrable heat. He could see his own body in the depths of the fire hole, bare to the waist like the others’, wet and shining like metal in the fierce light, as they bent, drew back, thrust forward, again and again, hour after hour. He could hear the bright, irregular explosion of the Spanish guns outside, and feel the shattering jar of the Brooklyn’s volley, yet it had not, even at the time, seemed important. Only the heat, mounting till it seemed something incredible, was real. That, and the infallible regularity of the men’s movements — the bend of body, the sharp, strong angle of the back-drawn arm, the swift and certain outthrust of wrist and scoop toward the insatiable fires.
He remembered the end of the watch, when they had come up from the concentrated dark heat of the fire hole into the white, diffused heat of the deck. The firing was almost over then. Only a vagrant belch of soft smoke from one or another of the American ships sullied the stillness of water and shore line. They were hove to. A gray hulk lay beached on her side, a quarter mile to starboard. She was burning with a ruthless, steady flame, and she looked neglected and abandoned lying there, like an old man dying. The water all about was filled with swimming men and floating wreckage, and boats from the Brooklyn were picking up the men. The gray commodore was watching from the bridge, and smiling.
Mason nodded toward the flaming wreck and asked a seaman: ‘What ship is that?’
The fellow had turned from the rail, goggling at him. ‘The Viscaya,‘ he said, with a note of incredulity. ‘Carrying Cervera’s flag. . .
A decisive day, judged by the standards of those who determined such matters. Mason found himself wondering what peculiar inadequacy within himself had kept him aloof from all that moved and drove other men. Some were sustained by ambition — the desire for power or for money or for women. And some found a certain zest in the pure adventure of living, imbuing their own actions with a glamour which gave even to death a touch of the theatrical, requiring only the right setting, the dramatic incident. There was young Garvey, who had died of gunshot wounds under his very eyes, with the light of triumph in his twisted face, and muttering through blood: ‘Well, they got me, Mason, but we got them, the . . .‘
Mason knew that, if it had happened to him, it would have impressed him as merely one more negligible incident in a singularly pointless scheme of things. He tried to sift down his own detachment to its essential weakness, for he had the conviction that it must be a weakness, at bottom. He saw himself as a kind of two-dimensional figure, moving across the face of life without the depth, the sense of significance, which belonged to most of humanity. Lynch, by comparison, was simple, understandable. There was something beautifully clear about his unscrupulous ambition. It was the thing he lived by, whatever meannesses he might of necessity have perpetrated in the attainment of his ends. Certainly every man must live according to his lights — but when Mason tried to discern what motive had lain beneath his own living he found himself grasping at something so vague and nameless that he could in no way define it. Not power, not adventure, not even courage in any conscious sense. Nothing more, perhaps, than the mere arid satisfaction of performing a hard job with no prospect of reward or recognition — that, and a kind of inherent honesty for which he took no credit to himself.
The lights of a small town swept past on the rushing darkness — brief flashes of red and yellow and green — Christmas trees. He could imagine Gleason in the grip of sentimental nostalgia as he peered out at the family groups on Christmas Eve. Even young Foley was probably thinking of his mother getting ready for midnight Mass. And Mike Lynch would be enjoying himself after his fashion in the opulent background which he had created from the fabric of his own peculiar lusts. Every man to his faith — even if it were only a halfsardonic faith in his own supremely unimportant integrity. . . .
They were out in the open now, the signal lights flashing past rapidly. Mason looked at his watch. Still on time, and going seventy miles an hour. Foley was putting in the fire without pause, legs planted firm and wide upon the deck, and the asbestos shield smoking in the white heat. Mason craned close to the front window. They were approaching the long curve to the left, where their track crossed the L. & B., just before coming into Norris, and he was watching for the familiar semaphore, but the open trap in the window blew a spume of mingled sleet and steam back in his face. He said: —
‘I can’t see a damn thing. Can you see on your side?’
Foley threw down the scoop and climbed on to the left-hand seat box. The sweat was running down through the soot on his face, and his eyes were strained and glassy from the fire. He wiped them impatiently with the back of his glove.
He turned back to the fire, blinking blindly, and Mason stood up suddenly and opened the window as they flashed past the signal. At once it occurred to him that this was what he had been going to meet all along, and he had a moment’s surprise that he had not seen it more clearly before.
He shouted, ‘My God, it’s red! Jumpl‘
He had one vivid impression of Foley’s face, white, immobile for a split instant in the roaring motion of the cab, and then it was gone. Quite automatically Mason closed the throttle, reversed the engine, applied the air, — all with incredible swiftness, — but he knew more certainly than he had ever known anything that it was a useless gesture. The final overwhelming futility of all endeavor rushed over him with an almost exhilarating force. The inevitable disaster seemed in some manner a complete justification for all that he had been and failed to be.
He stood for an instant, a gaunt, poised figure with legs braced against the sway of the locomotive, and as it hit the derail he accepted one last small gift of irony: —
‘Now who the hell will give him a complete report about this?‘