Courtesy on Wheels

A State-of-Mainer, MARY ELLEN CHASE began her teaching of English at Smith College with the resolve that someday she would write stories about her beloved state. The Atlantic published the first of them; then came her novel Mary Peters, which earned her a national reputation. The link that bound Northampton to her home in the Maine uplands was the old Boston and Maine Railroad, a road whose special brand of courtesy she never forgot.

by MARY ELLEN CHASE

I CAN’T sec that the companionable atmosphere of the Boston and Maine Railroad has changed much over the forty years I have known it, in spite of its diesel engines and its occasional new steel coaches with adjustable seats. Only last winter, traveling from Northampton to Boston for sixteen consecutive weeks, I was again made aware of its personal concern for its passengers. The ticket office in Northampton being closed one Sunday morning, I was obliged to buy my ticket on the train. The conductor, due to leave the train at Greenfield, routed me to Bellows Falls instead of to Boston, perhaps cherishing a subconscious longing for Vermont. But when I anxiously presented my invalid transportation slip to the conductor on the Greenfield-Boston run, he was not in the least disturbed. “I’ll just write a note on the back to the fellow who relieves me at Fitchburg,” he said. “It won’t make a bit of difference, so rest quiet in your mind.”And one morning last February, when travel was light between Boston and Greenfield, the conductor and trainman together skillfully repaired the handle of my suitcase, which had completely given way. They both proudly pronounced it a good job when they tenderly helped me off at Greenfield. It still works admirably.

I often, at odd moments, review the pleasant experiences, persons, and thoughts which the Boston and Maine has afforded me. Once some twenty years ago on the Boston run, we halted in the middle of a daisy field in the vicinity of South Deerfield. There being no station visible, I mildly wondered at our reason for stopping until I saw a young woman running toward the train from a nearby farmhouse and much encumbered by bags and parcels. These she hurriedly gave over to the good-natured conductor while she said with winning confidence: “Now I’ll just get the baby. I won’t be a moment.”

During the years when I was a graduate student at a Middle Western university, I always contrived on my annual journeys homeward 1o Maine, my native state, to take the Boston and Maine train which left Boston for Portland daily at 5 P.M. I did this solely because I could not bear to miss an old Negro porter who manned the one parlor car on the run. Like all graduate students I was always in financial as well as intellectual straits, and I could not afford the parlor car beyond Portland. Once there, I moved to the day coach of the Maine Central, which at Portland takes over from the Boston and Maine and wanders on toward Bangor and points down East.

This old porter, who was worth any monetary sacrifice, was for many years during the first decades of the present century in charge of the parlor car. He was very black with a gentle, thoughtful face beneath snow-white hair. Just before we reached Portland, he performed his daily act, inimitable and unchanged. First, he walked to the front of his car, where he stood for a few moments facing us all. Then, Aery slowly, with his arms outstretched, he paced its length, reciting lines, clearly of his own composition, with infinite grace and charm: —

“Ladies and gentlemen, take care!
Have you left
Your shoes, overshoes, or rubbers,
Your books, newspapers, or magazines,
Your umbrellas or your parasols,
Your eatables or your drinkables,
Or any other ac’-cessories whatsoever?'’

Time and change have, in fact, made relatively few inroads upon the Boston and Maine, at least in terms of its own distinctive personality. I am always comfortably certain even today that I shall not only be thoughtfully cared for, but that among my fellow passengers I shall meet someone worthy of note or even of grateful memory. Two summers ago this faith was immeasurably strengthened by a somewhat odd conversation which I enjoyed with a man who boarded the train at a New Hampshire town, en route for Waterville, Maine.

The day coaches now on this Boston and MaineMaine Central run are quite sumptuous affairs, each possessing a smoking compartment at the rear end. I was having a cigarette as the sole occupant of this compartment when I was joined by a middle-aged, unshaven, and distinctly untidy individual in blue denim overalls, who was clearly suffering from an advanced case of asthma. He had no discernible luggage except for a dirty canvas bag, which was obviously filled with books and which he deposited carefully on the floor beside him. His coughing, wheezing, and strangling were so alarming that I inquired compassionately about his condition. He was only too glad of sympathy.

“The only thing to do with a case like mine,” he said, “is just a bullet in my head.”

I demurred politely over such summary treatment.

“Incurable,” he continued between wheezes. “Not a chance. Fact is, I’m just out of a hospital. I owe those nuns there twenty-one dollars for three days of nothin’. They’ll get their money someday, for I’m an honest man, but not now. The choice was between them and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and I chose Gibbon. He’s there in that bag. I spied him in a junk shop on my way to the hospital. All the time I was there I was itchin’ for him, so I picked him up on my way to the train. You a reading person yourself?”

I admitted my own enthusiasm for Gibbon, noting with relief that his wheezing now seemed distinctly on the mend.

“Some folks lean to Macaulay,” he said. “I’ve read both, but Gibbon’s got more scope to my mind. I’m a locomotive engineer by trade, but a book collector on the side. ‘There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away,’ as the poet says. Or ‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold.’ Take your pick. Which is your favorite?”

I was saved from this somehow embarrassing choice by the entrance of the conductor, who glanced at. the book collector’s dog-eared railway puss and then commented on his asthma.

“Seem less wheezy today, Bill,” he said. “Hear you been in hospital.”

“Nothin’ doin’ there,” Bill said. “Cash thrown away. My medicine’s in that bag. Books.”

’“Not in my line,”the conductor said and went on toward another car.

“I surmise you’re a teacher,” Bill said after some moments of silence during which his asthma was steadily disappearing. “That right?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Well, the difference between us is that you live with books and I catch ‘em as catch can; but there’s worse fates than mine. I’m known on this railroad as a readin’ man and as a prime cook. You cook yourself, maybe?”

I said cooking happened to be a passion of mine.

“Good,” Bill said. “There’s always a bond between them that cook right, as there is between them that read books. Now just how do you dish up a rabbit?”

This unexpected question had the sinister effect of throwing me into a minor panic, for I am one of those who would not eat rabbit except in the extremities of starvation. To cook one would be unthinkable. My reply, therefore, was hesitant.

“Simmer, I suppose, slowly —with dumplings at the end,” I ventured.

The scorn which greeted my words was withering.

“Nothin’ could be worse,” he said. “I say nothin’, and I mean nothin’. Precisely nothin’ comes from a stewed rabbit. There’s just one way to cook a rabbit. Learn it, and you’ve got a dish fit for any Nero.

“Get your beans on hand on Friday night. Parboil ‘em. Get your pinch of mustard, salt, and a cup of thick New Orleans molasses ready. Half a small onion grated don’t hurt a mite. Before you put your beans in the pot — and I mean a good old brown piece of crockery, mind you. — cram your well-dressed rabbit down in the bottom. Then cover him with your beans and fixin’s and the least dight of water, and chuck him in the oven.

“Unless you can’t help yourself, don’t go in for gas or electrics. They kill flavor. There’s nothin’ like an iron cookstove and a slow wood fire. Pack her full of hard stuff, beech and maple. Get her going brisk, close her up tight, and go to bed. In the mornin’ there’ll be a smell in that kitchen to set your nose twitchin’. Bake him good and slow all day Saturday. At suppertime ladle out your beans for Sunday. They’ll keep. What you want is that rabbit. If you’ve got a friend you want to show off to, ask him in. As for me, I generally read over my rabbit.”

By the time he had finished his recipe, his asthma had vanished. I left him to his Gibbon and scored up yet another debt to the Boston and Maine.

I’m regretfully certain that it doesn’t now stop at farmhouses and wait for babies and that its old porter has long since gone, though never into oblivion for those who heard his work of art. I hope that Bill cooks his rabbit on his weekends off from his engine and enjoys his Gibbon whether or not he has ever paid the nuns. But that genial good manners still distinguish the ways of my favorite railroad I realized only a few days ago, again on the Boston and Portland run. For when the conductor entered our day coach to collect our fares, he removed his blue cap with a flourish and said: “Good afternoon, folks. A pleasant journey! May I see your tickets, please?”