In the Open Code by Burton
The day’s work was finished and the entire job well
started. I felt sure we should meet old Bankard’s
wishes fully. The rare old Virginia manor and its
wooded park were going to look again as the original
designer meant them to appear. Gordon, I know, agreed
with me—Gordon, who was to restore the house as I
restored the grounds.
That evening he and I were sitting on a rusted iron
bench in a corner of the park that looked off over the
hills, watching the summer dusk steal up the eastern sky.
I still wanted to talk of the day’s accomplishment, but
Gordon seemed to have grown—I was going to say
dreamy, but he was watchful instead.
Presently he drew out his watch and said, “In just
about four minutes you will hear it.”
“See that notch between those two hills about a mile
and a half away over there?” He pointed. “Keep your
eye on that.”
“Yes, a blast. But not the kind you think. Just
We smoked in silence, and my curiosity was about to
break into speech again, or ebb altogether, when it
An ordinary freight train passed, but the locomotive,
as it emerged from the flat hillside and traversed the
broad notch, let off a stream of white puffs from its
whistle, and then disappeared behind the other hill, precisely
like an episode on the stage.
In a moment the white puffs translated themselves
from a sight in the eye to a sound in the ear. And I tell
the truth when I say that they reproduced, with a mimicry
that was startling, the notes of the last two bars of
“What do you make of that!” Gordon turned and
exulted to me over his odd little discovery.
“How did you get on to it?”
“Oh, stumbled across it the first evening we were here.
It goes every day at this time, as regular as clock-work.”
“Some engineer with a sense of humor amusing himself,”
“But regularity isn’t amusement. He blows it every
day at this time. And always in the same way.”
I tried another hypothesis. “A code signal of some
sort, most likely.”
“But what an odd code! What a poetic code, for a
“Well, I’ve learned to expect a good deal of life in
Virginia. It seems to be different here.”
“Yes, it’s a code.... Of course it’s a code!” Gordon
amended himself. “But—I wonder if it’s a railroad
“I see. A lover and his lass, eh? You’re crediting
your railroad engineer with your own romantic soul,
Gordon.” I patted his arm, as Jemima, our cook, rang
her bell for supper. “Now there’s a code that I can
understand!” And we hurried in to the table.
By next evening the whole gang had heard of the
curious signal from the freight locomotive and assembled
at the opening of the trees to hear it. Precisely at the
moment due the obedient freight train crossed the notch
in the distant hills, and as precisely as before the engine
let off its string of puffs that in a moment became in our
ears those last two bars of the song.
There were as many theories to account for it as there
were men to hear it. In the end the congress bore down
Gordon and pronounced it a simple railroad code, with
the longs and shorts accidentally resembling the tune,
or made so by a whimsical engineer.
Nevertheless the phenomenon was interesting enough
to compel a bit of discussion about the fire in the great
hall after we had despatched our supper. The talk
drifted away into the curious tricks that artisans come to
play with their implements—carpenters able to toss up
edged tools and catch them deftly, and the like. But
Gordon was not to be weaned from the subject of that
“There’s nothing to prevent that engineer from playing
‘Yankee Doodle’ on his whistle if he wants to.
Haven’t you often lain awake at night listening to the
blasts of the locomotives? You can tell when an engineer
is ruffled, when he starts behind time out of the
yard, and knows he must be extra alert that night. His
toot is sharp and impatient. Or you can tell an engineer
coming home from his run. His whistle fairly sighs his
“La, Gordon,” some one yawned, “you’re a poetic
“Well, I believe in that engineer,” he defended.
“Next time I go down to the village I’m going to find
out who blows that thing and why he does it.”
He did go down to the village and he did learn the
secret of the whistle. It made a neat little story. The
whistle was a code signal, of a surety, and of precisely
the sort that Gordon figured it was. He knew his
A fellow named George Roberts was the engineer of
that freight, and his imitation of “Annie Laurie” was
truly a signal—to a sweetheart of his. Rough devil at
one time, this man Roberts, a tearing drinker and fighter,
he was fast on the way to ruin and discharge, when he
fell in love with this girl and braced up. Now every
time he passed the little house where she lived he tooted
his whistle like that in salutation.
“To let her know he’s safe,” Gordon finished.
Of course we charged him with making it up, but in
the end we came to believe him. Every day for four
weeks that whistle blew, always in the same way, always
in the same place, and always on the dot. And somehow
it had a sobering and softening effect upon the crowd of
woodsmen that we were. The men quarreled less frequently,
I noticed, were more considerate and helpful to
each other. I swear we all felt the influence of that
engineer. I’ll wager every man jack of us meant on
going home to be a bit the more thoughtful to the wife.
It cheered us all, that little touch of honest romance.
The world seemed a bit the better for it. We even took
to timing our supper not by Jemima’s bell but by George
Then another strange thing happened. The signal
The first time we missed it we could scarcely believe
our ears. But on the second day it was silent, and the
next. At the right time the train crossed the notch, but
no puffs came from the engine, no sound from the
It gave us a drop. The world was as drab as ever.
The cynics, of course, spoke up at once.
“Guess your friend the engineer is no better than the
rest of us,” one of them jeered at Gordon. “He couldn’t
keep it up.”
“Drunk again, probably,” jeered another.
“Maybe it’s only a little lovers’ tiff,” I argued in
“I’m going to find out,” Gordon finished the discussion.
And he did. Made a special errand to the village to
find out. And returned with a smile.
“They’re married,” he reported. “Off on their honeymoon.
They’ll be back in a week. Watch for the signal
He was right. In a week the signal was resumed, but
in another place.
“How’s that?” one of the men still girded at Gordon.
“Guess he’s learned to respect his wife’s throwing arm.
He pipes up now from a more respectful distance.”
“That’s easy,” Gordon let the caviller down gently.
“He’s set her up in a little house farther along the line.
Naturally that’s where he would whistle now.”
For three weeks more we heard the faithful signal, at
its new place. A little more faintly, but always punctual,
always the same. And again the men began to whistle
at their work.
By then the job was nearly finished. In two or three
weeks more we should be leaving, and the whole crowd
began to allege a touch of regret. They protested it was
because the old place was so beautiful, but privately I
think George Roberts and his tooting had something to
do with the homesickness. To whatever new place we
might go, however pleasant it might be, there was going
to be a trifle that was lacking.
Then again a strange thing happened. Again the
whistle stopped. For four days it was silent.
“Family jar already!” came the usual good-natured
“She’s flung a plate and crippled his whistle arm.”
“Guess you’d better find out what’s the matter, Gordon,”
a third man recommended.
“I will,” said Gordon.
That evening he returned from the village without the
smile. Nevertheless, as he was still plodding up the long
driveway, his head down, his step slow, we actually heard
the whistle as we sat waiting for Gordon under the
portico. There was no mistaking it. And yet its note
seemed different; there was a new tone to it, something
like Gordon’s air. And it seemed to come from still
Gordon paused as he heard it, and stood still, with his
hat in his hand, till it died away. Then he came up the
steps and sat down. We all leaned toward him.
“She fell ill,” he said. “They left her in the little
cemetery down the line. She’d always been delicate.
And I suppose that’s where he’s whistling now. To—to
let her know he’s safe.”