Railway Junctions

by Clayton Hamilton

In his illuminating essay on The Lantern-Bearers, Stevenson complains of the vacuity of that view of life which he finds expressed in the pages of most realistic writers. “This harping on life’s dulness and man’s meanness is a loud profession of incompetence; it is one of two things: the cry of the blind eye, I cannot see, or the complaint of the dumb tongue, I cannot utter.” And then, with a fine flourish, he declares:—“If I had no better hope than to continue to revolve among the dreary and petty businesses, and to be moved by the paltry hopes and fears with which they surround and animate their heroes, I declare I would die now. But there has never an hour of mine gone quite so dully yet; if it were spent waiting at a railway junction, I would have some scattering thoughts, I could count some grains of memory, compared to which the whole of one of these romances seems but dross.”

“If it were spent waiting at a railway junction” … Here, with his instinct for the perfect phrase, Stevenson has pointed a finger at the one experience which is commonly accepted as the acme of imaginable dulness. This man, who could be happy at a railway junction, could not have found a prouder way of boasting to posterity that he had never “faltered more or less in his great task of happiness.”

It is because railway junctions are the most unpopular places in the world that they have been singled out for praise in The Unpopular Review. Poor places, lonely and forlorn, cursed by so many, celebrated by so few,—surely they have waited over-long for an apologist…. But first of all, in order to be fair, we must consider the customary view of these points of punctuation in the text of travel.

Far up in Vermont, at a point vaguely to the east of Burlington, there is a place called Essex Junction. It consists of a dismal shed of a station, a bewildering wilderness of tracks, and an adjacent cemetery, thickly populated (according to a local legend) with the bodies of people who have died of old age while waiting for their trains. This elegiac locality was visited, many years ago, by the Honorable E.J. Phelps, once ambassador of the United States to the court of St. James’s. He was allotted several hours for the contemplation of the cemetery; and his consequent meditations moved him to the composition of a poem, in four stanzas, which is a little classic of its kind. Space is lacking for a quotation of more than the initial stanza; but the taste of a poem, as of a pie, may conveniently be judged from a quadrant of the whole.—

With saddened face and battered hat

And eye that told of blank despair,

On wooden bench the traveller sat,

Cursing the fate that brought him there.

“Nine hours,” he cried, “we’ve lingered here

With thoughts intent on distant homes,

Waiting for that delusive train

That, always coming, never comes:

Till weary, worn,

Distressed, forlorn,

And paralyzed in every function!

I hope in hell

His soul may dwell

Who first invented Essex Junction!”

It was apparently the purpose of the writer to convey the impression that his period of waiting had been passed without pleasure; but yet we may easily confute him with another quotation from The Lantern-Bearers. “One pleasure at least,” says Stevenson, “he tasted to the full—his work is there to prove it—the keen pleasure of successful literary composition.” Was this honorable author ever moved to such eloquence by an audience with Queen Victoria? Never; so far as we know. Was not Essex Junction, therefore, a more inspiring spot than Buckingham Palace? Undeniably. Then, why complain of Essex Junction?

For, indeed, the pleasure that we take from places is nothing more nor less than the pleasure we put into them. A person predisposed to boredom can be bored in the very nave of Amiens; and a person predisposed to happiness can be happy even in Camden, New Jersey. I know: for I have watched American tourists in Amiens; and once, when I had gone to Camden, to visit Walt Whitman in his granite tomb, I was wakened to a strange exhilaration, and wandered all about that little dust-heap of a city amazing the inhabitants with a happiness that required them to smile. “All architecture,” said Whitman, “is what you do to it when you look upon it;… all music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments”: and I must have had this passage singing in my blood when I enjoyed that monstrous courthouse dome which stands up like a mushroom in the midst of Camden.

I have never been to Essex Junction; but I should like to go there—just to see (in Whitman’s words) what I could do to it. Imagine it upon a windy night of winter, when a hundred discommoded passengers are turned out, grumbling, underneath the stars,—coughing invalids, and kicking infants, and indignant citizens, scrambling haphazard among tottering trunks, and picking their way from train to train. Imagine their faces, their voices, their gesticulations: here, indeed, you will see more than a theatre-full of characters. Or, if human beings do not interest you, imagine the mysterious gleam of yellow windows veiled behind a drift of intermingled smoke and steam. Listen, also, to the clang of bells, the throb and puff of the engines, and the shrill shriek of their whistles. Or peer into the station-shed, made stuffy by the breath of many loiterers; and contrast their death in life with the life in death of those others who loiter through eternity beneath the gravestones of the cemetery. I can imagine being happy with all this (and even writing a paragraph about it afterwards): but, above all, I should like to gather those hundred discommoded passengers upon the station-platform, and to rehearse and lead them in a solemn chant of the refrain of Phelps’s poem. Imagine a hundred voices singing lustily in unison,

“I hope in hell

His soul may dwell

Who first invented Essex Junction,”

under the vast cathedral vaulting of the night, until the adjacent dead should seem to stand up in their graves and join the anthem of anathema…. Who is there so bold to tell me that enjoyment is impossible in such a place as this?

There is very little difference between places, after all: the true difference is between the people who regard them. I should rather read a description of Hoboken by Rudyard Kipling than a description of Florence by some New England schoolmarm. To the poet, all places are poetical; to the adventurous, all places are teeming with adventure: and to experience a lack of joy in any place is merely a sign of sluggish blood in the beholder.

So, at least, it seems to me; for not otherwise can I explain the fact that, like my beloved R.L.S., I have always enjoyed waiting at railway junctions. I love not merely the marching phrases, but also the commas and the semi-colons of a journey,—those mystic moments when “we look before and after” and need not “pine for what is not.” I have never done much waiting in America, which is in the main a country of express trains, that hurl their lighted windows through the night like what Mr. Kipling calls “a damned hotel;” but there is scarcely a country of Europe except Russia whose railway junctions are unknown to me. In many of these little nameless places I have experienced memorable hours: and because the less enthusiastic Baedeker has neglected to star and double-star them, I have always wanted to praise them, in print somewhat larger than his own. Space is lacking in the present article for a complete guide to all the railway junctions of Europe; but I should like to commemorate a few, in gratitude for what befell me there.

There is a junction in Bavaria whose name I have forgotten; but it is very near Rothenburg, the most picturesquely medieval of all German cities. It consists merely of a station and two intersecting tracks. When you enter the station, you observe what seems to be a lunch-counter; but if you step up to it and innocently order food, a buxom girl informs you that no food is ever served there—and then everybody laughs. This pleasant cachinnation attracts your attention to the assembled company. It consists of many peasants, in their native costumes (which any painter would be willing to journey many miles to see), who are enjoying the delicious experience of travel. They are great travelers, these peasants. Once a month they take the train to Rothenburg, and once a month they journey home again, to talk of the experience for thirty days. All of them have heard of Nuremberg [which is actually less than a hundred miles away],—that vast and wonderful metropolis, so far, so very far, beyond the ultimate horizon of their lives. They would like to see it some day—as I should like to see the Taj Mahal—but meanwhile they content themselves with the great adventure of going to Rothenburg,—a city that is really much more interesting, if they could only know. In the very midst of these congregated travelers, I casually set down a suit-case which was plastered over with many labels from many lands; and this suit-case affected them as I might be affected by a messenger from Mars. They spelled out many unfamiliar languages, and a murmur of amazement swept through the entire company when one of them discovered that that suit-case had been to Morocco. Morocco, they assured me, was a place where black men rode on camels; and I had no heart to tell them that it was a country where white men rode on mules. Then another of these travelers—an old man, with a face like one of Albrecht Dürer’s drawings—discovered a label that read “Venezia.” “Is that,” he said, “Venedig?” with a little gasp. “Yes; Venedig,” I responded, “where the streets are water.” Slowly he removed his hat. “Ach, Venedig!” he sighed; and then he stooped down, and, with the uttermost solemnity, he kissed the label…. And then I understood the vast impulsion of that wanderlust which has pushed so many, many Germans southward, to overrun that golden city that is wedded to the sea. I have forgotten the name of that junction, as I said before; but I have never been so happy in Munich as in this lonely station where there is no food.

Speaking of food reminds me of Bobadilla, in southern Spain. Bobadilla sounds as if it ought to be the name of a medieval town, with ghosts of gaunt imaginative knights riding forth to tilt with windmills; but there is no town at all at Bobadilla,—merely two railway restaurants set on either side of several intersecting tracks. For some mysterious reason, passengers from the four quarters of the compass—that is to say, from Cordoba, Granada, Algeciras, or Sevilla—are required to alight here, and eat, and change their trains. I remember Bobadilla as the place where you spend your counterfeit money. Many of the current coins of southern Spain are made of silver; and the rest are made of lead. For leaden five-peseta pieces there is a local name, “Sevillan dollars,” which ascribes their coinage to the crafty artisans of the capital of Andalucia. These pieces, which are plentiful, are just as good as silver dollars—when you can persuade anyone to take them. The currency of any coinage, except gold, depends entirely upon the faith of those who pass and take it and has no reference to its intrinsic value; and, in southern Spain, the leaden dollars serve as counters for just as many commercial transactions as the dollars made of silver. The only difference is that they are commonly accepted only after protest. In every Spanish shop, a slab of marble is built into the counter, and on this slab all proffered coins are slapped before they are accepted by the merchant. The traveler soon learns to fling his change upon the pavement; and many merry arguments ensue regarding the timbre of their ring. I remember how once, in the wondrous town of Ronda, when a beggar had imposed himself upon me as a guide and led me into a church where High Mass was being chanted, I gave him a peseta to get rid of him, and at once he flung it upon the pavement of the church, and chased it, listening, across the nave. Thereafter, he protested loudly that the piece was lead, and disrupted the intoning of the priests. “Very well,” said I, “it is, in any case, a gift; if you don’t want it, I will take it back”: and he accepted it with bows and smiles, and allowed the weary priests to continue their intonings. But Bobadilla is the one place in southern Spain where money is never jingled upon marble. There is no time between trains to quibble over minor matters; and a “Sevillan dollar” accepted from one passenger is blithely handed to another who is traveling in the opposite direction. I discovered this fact on the occasion of my first visit to this interesting junction; and on subsequent occasions I have eaten my fill at one or another of the railway restaurants and settled the account with all the leaden money garnered up from weeks of traveling. There is surely no dishonesty in observing the custom of a country; and Bobadilla may be treasured by all travelers as a clearing-house for counterfeit coins.

Again, in northern France, it was merely by some accident of changing trains that I discovered the lovely little town of Dol. I found myself in Saint Malo, for obvious reasons; and I desired to go to Mont Saint-Michel, for reasons still more obvious—Mother Poulard’s omelettes, and architecture, and the incoming of the tide. Between them—the map told me—was situated Dol. I made inquiries of the porter in the Saint Malo hotel. He responded in English,—the English of Ici on parle anglais. “Dol,” said he, “is a dull place.” He pronounced “Dol” and “dull” in precisely the same manner, and smiled at his sickly pun. I did not like that smile; and I alighted at the town that he despised. It was a little picture-book of a place, with many toy-like medieval houses clustered side by side around a market-place where peasants twisted the tails of cows. I strolled to the cathedral—and found myself mysteriously in England. It was a manly Norman edifice, sane and reticent and strong, set in a veritable English green, with little houses round about, reminding one of Salisbury. I entered the Cathedral; and found the nave to be composed in what is called in England the “decorated” style, and the choir to give hints of “perpendicular.” And then I remembered, with a start, that the ancestors of all that is most beautiful in England had migrated from Normandy, and that here I was visiting them in their antecedent home. “Saxon and Norman and Dane are we;” and all that was Norman in me reached forth with groping hands to grasp the palms of those old builders who reared this little sacrosanct cathedral in the far-off times when one dominion extended to either side of the English Channel.

It was by a similar accident—desiring to transfer myself from Bourges to Auxerre—that I discovered the wonderful junction-town of Nevers, which, despite the guide-books, is more interesting than either of the others. It possesses a Gothic cathedral with an apse at either end, that looks as if two churches had collided and telescoped each other. There is also a Romanesque church at Nevers which is just as simple and as manly as either of the famous abbeys in Caen; and a chateau with rounded towers, which once belonged to Mazarin. But the most amusing feature of this town is that, though Bourges packs itself to bed at ten o’clock, Nevers sits blithely up till twelve, listening to music in cafés, and watching moving-pictures; and this amiable incongruity in a medieval town makes you bless that complication of the time-table which has forced you, against forethought, to stay there over night.

It is difficult for me to remember a railway junction in which there was nothing to do; but perhaps Pyrgos, in Greece, comes nearest to this description. At this point, you change cars on your way from Patras to Olympia. The town is made of mud: that is to say, the single-storied houses are built of unbaked clay. There is nothing to see in Pyrgos. But I amused myself by addressing the inhabitants, in the English language, with an eloquent oration that soon gathered them under my control; and thereafter I set a hundred of them at the pleasant task of trying to push the train for Olympia on its way to take me to the Hermes of Praxiteles. I knew no word of their language, nor did they of mine; but they understood that that train should be started, if human force were sufficient to help the cars upon their way: and finally, when the engine puffed and snorted with a tardily awakened sense of duty, the train was cheered by the entire population as I waved my hand from the rear platform and quoted one of Daniel Webster’s perorations.

Is it—I have often wondered—so difficult as people think, to be happy in an hour “spent waiting at a railway junction”?… The kingdom of happiness is within us; or else there is no truth in our assumption that the will of man is free: and I am inclined to pity a man who, being happy in Amalfi—the loveliest of all the places I have ever seen—cannot also manage to be happy in Pyrgos—or in Essex Junction—and to communicate his happiness to his responsive fellow-travelers.

The true enjoyment of traveling is to enjoy traveling; not to relish merely the places you are going to, but to relish also the adventure of the going. The most difficult train-journey I remember is the twenty-hour trip from Lisbon to Sevilla, with a change of cars in the ghastly early morning at the border-town of Badajoz and another change at noon at the sun-baked, parched, and God-forsaken town of Merida; and yet I relish as red letters on my personal map of Spain a pleasant quarrel over the price of sandwiches at Badajoz and the way a muleteer of Merida flung a colored cloak over his shoulder and posed for an unconscious moment like a painting by Zuloaga.

And this philosophy has a deeper application to life at large: for all life may be figured as a journey, and few there are who are natively equipped for the enjoyment of all the waste and waiting places on the way. The minds of most people are so fixed upon the storied capitals that are featured in those works of fiction known as guidebooks that they are impeded from enjoying the minor stations on their journey. “Hurry me to Sevilla,” cries the traveler—and misses the sight of my muleteer of Merida. In America, our society is crammed with people who fail to enjoy life on five thousand a year because their minds are fixed upon that distant time when they hope to enjoy life on twenty thousand a year. And if ever they attain that twenty thousand they will not enjoy it either; but will merely peer forward to a hypothetical enjoyment at fifty thousand a year. And this is the essence of their tragedy:—they have not learned to wait with happiness.

Is there any reason for this inordinate ambition to “get on”? Louis Stevenson was happier, as a small boy with a bull’s-eye lantern at his belt, than any king upon his throne. The secret of enjoyment is to learn to look about us, to value what our destiny has given us, to transform it into magic by some contributory gift of poetry or humor, to consider with contentment the lilies of the field. The zest of life is in the living of it; and “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

How often, in the roaring and tumultuary tide of life, we meet a man who sighs, “If only I could have a single day in which there was nothing that I had to do, nothing even that I had to think of, how happy I should be!” and yet this self-same man, if set down at a railway junction, will at once bestir himself to seek something to think of, something to do, and will spurn the gift of leisure. The incessant hurry of our current life has tragically lured us to forget the art of loitering. We are no longer able—like Wordsworth, on his “old gray stone”—to sit upon a trunk at some railway junction of our lives and listen reverently to the “mighty sum of things forever speaking.”

One of the loveliest women I have ever known—the late Alison Cunningham—told me a little anecdote of the author of The Lantern-Bearers which, so far as I know, has never yet been published. When little Louis was about five years old, he did something naughty, and Cummy stood him up in a corner and told him he would have to stay there for ten minutes. Then she left the room. At the end of the allotted period, she returned and said, “Time’s up, Master Lou: you may come out now.” But the little boy stood motionless in his penitential corner. “That’s enough: time’s up,” repeated Cummy. And then the child mystically raised his hand, and with a strange light in his eyes, “Hush…,” he said, “I’m telling myself a story….”

And, in the Christian Morals of Sir Thomas Browne, we may read the following passage:—“He who must needs have company, must needs have sometimes bad company. Be able to be alone. Lose not the advantage of solitude, and the society of thyself; nor be only content, but delight to be alone and single with Omnipresency. He who is thus prepared, the day is not uneasy nor the night black unto him. Darkness may bound his eyes, not his imagination. In his bed he may lie, like Pompey and his sons, in all quarters of the earth; may speculate the universe, and enjoy the whole world in the hermitage of himself.”

Wordsworth sitting quiescent and receptive in a lakeside landscape, little Louis standing in a corner, Sir Thomas Browne enjoying the whole world in the hermitage of himself:—what a rebuke is offered by these images to those who fret and fume away the leisure that is granted them at all the waiting places of their lives!… These disgruntled travelers nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita miss their privilege and duty of enjoying life merely because they miss the point that life is, in itself, enjoyable. They are so busy reading guide-books to the vague beyond that they shut their minds to all that may be going on about them, or within them, at way-stations. They close their eyes and ears to the immediate. They veto all perception of the here and now. But life itself is always here and now; and, truly to enjoy it, we must learn to look forever with unfaltering eyes into the bright face of immediacy.

And there is another point about railway junctions that reveals an important application to the larger journey of our life. A friend of mine, who is a great lover of painting, had occasion once (and only once) to change trains at Basle, in the course of a journey from Lucerne to Heidelberg. He had to wait two hours at this railway junction; and this time he pleasantly expended in eating many dishes at a restaurant, and amusing the lax porters by teaching them a method of economizing energy in shifting trunks. It should be noted that this friend of mine was not trying to “kill time;” for, like all genuine humanitarians, he of course regards that tragic process as the least excusable of murders. He was entirely happy for two hours in that railway station. But—having packed his guide-book in a trunk—it was not until he reached Darmstadt, some days later, that he discovered that several of the very greatest works of Holbein are now resident in Basle. The two hours that he had spent playing and eating might have been devoted to an examination of many masterpieces of that art which, more than any other, he had crossed the seas to seek. He has never yet been able to return to Basle; but for a sight of those lost portraits of the most honest and straightforward of all German painters, he would gladly sell his memories of both Lucerne and Heidelberg.

Here we have a record of a great disappointment that was occasioned merely by the common habit of despising railway junctions, and presuming them to be inevitably dull. But this same unfortunate presumption, applied to life at large, leads many people to overlook the nearness of some great adventure. Interrogate a thousand men, and you will find that none of them has first set eyes upon his greatest friend in the Mosque of Cordoba or in Trafalgar Square. Every adventure of lasting consequence has confronted all of them, without exception, in some hidden nook or cranny of the world,—some place unknown to fame. Anybody is as likely to meet the woman who is destined to become his wife, at Essex Junction on a wintry night, as in the Parthenon by moonlight in the month of May. The most romantic places in the world are often those that promised, in advance, to be the least romantic.

Since this is so, how can anybody ever dare to shut his eyes to that incalculable imminency of adventure which environs him even when he is merely changing trains on some island-platform of the New York Subway? In our daily living we are never safe from destiny; and who can ever know in what vacuous and sedentary period of his experience he may suddenly be called upon to entertain an angel unawares? It is best to be prepared for anything, at any hour of our lives,—even at those moments that must, perforce, be “spent waiting at a railway junction.”