In the Train, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

I.—PUNCH'S UNDERSTUDY.

The first-class smoking compartment was the emptiest in the whole train, and even this was hot to suffocation, because my only companion denied me more than an inch of open window. His chest, he explained curtly, was "susceptible." As we crawled westward through the glaring country, the sun's rays reverberated on the carriage roof till I seemed to be crushed under an anvil, counting the strokes. I had dropped my book, and was staring listlessly out of the window. At the other end of the compartment my fellow-passenger had pulled down the blinds, and hidden his face behind the Western Morning News. He was a red and choleric little man of about sixty, with a protuberant stomach, a prodigious nose, to which he carried snuff about once in two minutes, and a marked deformity of the shoulders. For comfort—and also, perhaps, to hide this hump—he rested his back in the angle by the window. He wore a black alpaca coat, a high stock, white waistcoat, and trousers of shepherd's plaid. On these and a few other trivial details I built a lazy hypothesis that he was a lawyer, and unmarried.

Just before entering the station at Lostwithiel, our train passed between the white gates of a level crossing. A moment before I had caught sight of the George drooping from the church spire, and at the crossing I saw it was regatta-day in the small town. The road was thick with people and lined with sweet-standings; and by the near end of the bridge a Punch-and-Judy show had just closed a performance. The orchestra had unloosed his drum, and fallen to mopping the back of his neck with the red handkerchief that had previously bound the panpipes to his chin. A crowd still loitered around, and among it I noted several men and women in black—ugly stains upon the pervading sunshine.

The station platform was cram-full as we drew up, and it was clear at once that all the carriages in the train would be besieged, without regard to class. By some chance, however, ours was neglected, and until the very last moment we seemed likely to escape. The guard's whistle was between his lips when I heard a shout, then one or two feminine screams, and a company of seven or eight persons came charging out of the booking-office. Every one of them was apparelled in black: they were, in fact, the people I had seen gaping at the Punch-and-Judy show.

In a moment one of the men tore open the door of our compartment, and we were invaded. One—two—four—six—seven—in they poured, tumbling over my legs, panting, giggling inanely, exhorting each other to hurry—an old man, two youths, three middle-aged women, and a little girl about four years old. I heard a fierce guttural sound, and saw my fellow-passenger on his feet, choking with wrath and gesticulating. But the guard slammed the door on his resentment, and the train moved on. As it gathered speed he fell back, all purple above his stock, snatched his malacca walking-cane from under the coat-tails of a subsiding youth, stuck it upright between his knees, and glared round upon the intruders. They were still possessed with excitement over their narrow escape, and unconscious of offence. One of the women dropped into the corner seat, and took the little girl on her lap. The child's dusty boots rubbed against the old gentleman's trousers. He shifted his position, grunted, and took snuff furiously.

"That was nibby-jibby," observed the old man of the party, while his eyes wandered round for a seat.

"I declare I thought I should ha' died," panted a robust-looking woman with a wart on her cheek, and a yard of crape hanging from her bonnet. "Can't 'een find nowhere to sit, uncle?"

"Reckon I must make shift 'pon your lap, Susannah."

This was said with a chuckle, and the woman tittered.

"What new-fang'd game be this o' the Great Western's? Arms to the seats, I vow. We'll have to sit intimate, my dears."

"'Tis First Class," one of the young men announced in a chastened whisper: "I saw it written on the door."

There was a short silence of awe.

"Well!" ejaculated Susannah: "I thought, when first I sat down, that the cushions felt extraordinary plum. You don't think they'll fine us?"

"It all comes of our stoppin' to gaze at that Punch-an'-Judy," the old fellow went on, after I had shown them how to turn back the arm-seats, and they were settled in something like comfort. "But I never could refrain from that antic, though I feels condemned too, in a way, an' poor Thomas laid in earth no longer ago than twelve noon. But in the midst of life we are in death."

"I don't remember a more successful buryin'," said the woman who held the little girl.

"That was partly luck, as you may say, it bein' regatta-day an' the fun o' the fair not properly begun. I counted a lot at the cemetery I didn' know by face, an' I set 'em down for excursionists, that caught sight of a funeral, an' followed it to fill up the time."

"It all added."

"Oh, aye; Thomas was beautifully interred."

By this time the heat in the carriage was hardly more overpowering than the smell of crape, broadcloth, and camphor. The youth who had wedged himself next to me carried a large packet of "fairing," which he had bought at one of the sweet-stalls. He began to insert it into his side pocket, and in his struggles drove an elbow sharply into my ribs. I shifted my position a little.

"Tom's wife would ha' felt it a source o' pride, had she lived."

But I ceased to listen; for in moving I had happened to glance at the further end of the carriage, and there my attention was arrested by a curious little piece of pantomime. The little girl—a dark-eyed, intelligent child, whose pallor was emphasised by the crape which smothered her—was looking very closely at the old gentleman with the hump—staring at him hard, in fact. He, on the other hand, was leaning forward, with both hands on the knob of his malacca, his eyes bent on the floor and his mouth squared to the surliest expression. He seemed quite unconscious of her scrutiny, and was tapping one foot impatiently on the floor.

After a minute I was surprised to see her lean forward and touch him gently on the knee.

He took no notice beyond shuffling about a little and uttering a slight growl. The woman who held her put out an arm and drew back the child's hand reprovingly. The child paid no heed to this, but continued to stare. Then in another minute she again bent forward, and tapped the old gentleman's knee.

This time she fetched a louder growl from him, and an irascible glare. Not in the least daunted, she took hold of his malacca, and shook it to and fro in her small hand.

"I wish to heavens, madam, you'd keep your child to yourself!"

"For shame, Annie!" whispered the poor woman, cowed by his look.

But again Annie paid no heed. Instead, she pushed the malacca towards the old gentleman, saying—

"Please, sir, will 'ee warm Mister Barrabel wi' this?"

He moved uneasily, and looked harshly at her without answering. "For shame, Annie!" the woman murmured a second time; but I saw her lean back, and a tear started and rolled down her cheek.

"If you please, sir," repeated Annie, "will 'ee warm Mister Barrabel wi' this?"

The old gentleman stared round the carriage. In his eyes you could read the question, "What in the devil's name does the child mean?" The robust woman read it there, and answered him huskily—

"Poor mite! she's buried her father this mornin'; an' Mister Barrabel is the coffin-maker, an' nailed 'en down."

"Now," said Annie, this time eagerly, "will 'ee warm him same as the big doll did just now?"

Luckily, the old gentleman did not understand this last allusion. He had not seen the group around the Punch-and-Judy show; nor, if he had, is it likely he would have guessed the train of thought in the child's mind. But to me, as I looked at my fellow-passenger's nose and the deformity of his shoulders, and remembered how Punch treats the undertaker in the immortal drama, it was all plain enough. I glanced at the child's companions. Nothing in their faces showed that they took the allusion; and the next moment I was glad to think that I alone knew what had prompted Annie's speech.

For the next moment, with a beautiful change on his face, the old gentleman had taken the child on his knee, and was talking to her as I dare say he had never talked before.

"Are you her mother?" he asked, looking up suddenly, and addressing the woman opposite.

"Her mother's been dead these two year. I'm her aunt, an' I'm takin' her home to rear 'long wi' my own childer."

He was bending over Annie, and had resumed his chat. It was all nonsense—something about the silver knob of his malacca—but it took hold of the child's fancy and comforted her. At the next station I had to alight, for it was the end of my journey. But looking back into the carriage as I shut the door, I saw Annie bending forward over the walking-stick, and following the pattern of its silverwork with her small finger. Her face was turned from the old gentleman's, and behind her little black hat his eyes were glistening.

II.—A CORRECTED CONTEMPT.

The whistles had sounded, and we were already moving slowly out of St. David's Station, Exeter, to continue our journey westward, when the door was pulled open and a brown bag, followed by a whiff of Millefleurs and an over-dressed young man, came flying into the compartment where I sat alone and smoked.

The youth scrambled to a seat as the door slammed behind him; remarked that it was "a near shave"; and laughed nervously as if to assure me that he found it a joke. His face was pink with running, and the colour contrasted unpleasantly with his pale sandy hair and moustache. He wore a light check suit, a light-blue tie knotted through a "Mizpah" ring, a white straw hat with a blue ribbon, and two finger-rings set with sham diamonds—altogether the sort of outfit that its owner would probably have described as "rather nobby." Feeling that just now it needed a few repairs, he opened the bag, pulled out a duster and flicked away for half-a-minute at his brown boots. Next with a handkerchief he mopped his face and wiped round the inner edge first of his straw hat, and then of his collar and cuffs. After this he stood up, shook his trousers till they hung with a satisfying gracefulness, produced a cigar-case—covered with forget-me-nots in crewel work—and a copy of the Sporting Times, sat down again, and asked me if I could oblige him with a light.

I think the train had neared Dawlish before the cigar was fairly started, and his pink face hidden behind the pink newspaper. But even so between the red sandstone cliffs and the wholesome sea this pink thing would not sit still. His diamond rings kept flirting round the edge of the Sporting Times, his brown boots shifting their position on the cushion in front of him, his legs crossing, uncrossing, recrossing, his cigar-smoke rising in quick, uneasy puffs.

Between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot this restlessness increased. He dropped some cigar-ash on his waistcoat and arose to shake it off. Twice or thrice he picked up the paper and set it down again. As we ran into Newton Abbot Station, he came over to my side of the carriage and scanned the small crowd upon the platform. Suddenly his pink cheeks flushed to crimson. The train was slowing to a standstill, and while he hesitated with a hand on the door, a little old man came trotting down the platform—a tremulous little man, in greenish black broadcloth, eloquent of continued depression in some village retail trade. His watery eyes shone brimful of pride and gladness.

"Whai, Charley, lad, there you be, to be shure; an' lookin' as peart as a gladdy! Shaäke your old vather's vist, lad—ees fay, you be lookin' well!"

The youth, scorched with a miserable shame, stepped out, put his hand in his father's, and tried to withdraw him a little up the platform and out of my hearing.

"Noa, noa; us'll bide where us be, zoa's to be 'andy vur the train when her starts off. Her doan't stay no while. I vound Zam Emmet zarving here as porter—you mind Zam? Danged if I knawed 'en, vurst along, the vace of 'en's that altered: grawed a beard, her hev. But her zays to me, 'How be gettin' 'long, Isaac?' an' then I zaw who 'twas—an' us fell to talkin', and her zaid the train staps vaive minnits, no more nor less."

His son interrupted him with mincing haughtiness.

"'Ow's mothaw?"

"Weist an' ailin', poor crittur—weist an' ailin'. Dree times her've a-been through the galvanic battery, an' might zo well whistle. Turble lot o' zickness about. An' old Miss Ruby's resaigned, an' a new postmistress come in her plaäce—a tongue-tight pore crittur, an' talks London. If you'll b'lieve me, Miss Ruby's been to Plymouth 'pon her zavings an' come back wi' vifteen pound' worth of valse teeth in her jaws, which, as I zaid, 'You must excoose my plain speakin', but they've a-broadened your mouth, Miss Ruby, an' I laiked 'ee better as you was bevore.' 'Never mind,' her zays, 'I can chow.' There now, Charley—zimme I've been doing arl the tarlk, an' thy mother'll be waitin' wi' dree-score o' questions, zoon as I gets whome. Her'd ha' corned to gie thee a kiss, if her'd a-been 'n a vit staäte; but her's zent thee zummat—"

He foraged in the skirt pockets of his threadbare coat and brought out a paper of sandwiches and a long-nosed apple. I saw the young man wince.

"Her reckoned you'd veel a wamblin' in the stommick, travellin' arl the waäy from Hexeter to Plymouth. There, stow it awaäy. Not veelin' peckish? Never maind: there's a plenty o' taime betwix' this an' Plymouth."

"No, thanks."

"Tut-tut, now—" He insisted, and the packet, on the white paper wrapper of which spots of grease were spreading, changed hands. The little man peered wistfully up into his son's face: his own eyes were full of love, but seemed to search for something.

"How dost laike it, up to Hexeter: an' how't get along?"

"Kepital—kepital. Give mothaw my love."

"E'es be shure. Fainely plaized her'll be to hear thee'rt zo naicely adrest. Her'd maäde up her maind, pore zowl, that arl your buttons ud be out, wi' nobody to zee arter 'en. But I declare thee'rt drest laike a topsawyer."

And with this a dead silence fell between the two. The old man shifted his weight from one foot to another, and twice cleared his throat. The young counter-jumper averted his eyes from his father's quivering lip to stare up the platform. The minutes ran on.

At last the old man found his voice—

"Thic' there's a stubbard apple you've got in your hand."

"Take your seats, please!"

The guard held the door while they shook hands again. "Charley" leaned out at the window as our train began to move.

"Her comes from the zeccond 'spalier past the inyon-bed; al'ays the vurst to raipen, thic' there tree."

The old fellow broke into something resembling a run as he followed our carriage to shout—

"Turble bad zayson vur zaider!"

With that he halted at the end of the platform, and watched us out of sight. His son flung himself on the seat with—I could have kicked him for it—a deprecatory titter. Then he drew a long breath; but it was twenty minutes before his blush faded, and he regained confidence to ask me for another light.

Just eighteen months after I was travelling up to London in the Zulu express. A large Fair Trade meeting had been held at Plymouth the night before, and three farmers in the compartment with me were discussing that morning's leader in the Western Daily Mercury. One of them had already been goaded into violent speech when we halted at Newton Abbot and another passenger stepped in—a little old man in a suit of black.

I recognised him at once. And yet he was changed woefully. He had fallen away in flesh; the lines had deepened beside his upper lip; and in spite of a glossier suit he had an appearance of hopelessness which he had not worn when I saw him for the first time.

He took his seat, looked about him vacantly and caught the eye of the angry farmer, who nodded, broke off his speech in the middle of a sentence, and asked in a curiously gentle voice—

"Travellin' up to Exeter?"

The old man bent his head for "yes," and I saw the tears well up in his weak eyes.

"There's no need vur to ax your arrand." The farmer here dropped his tone almost to a whisper.

"Naw, naw. I be goin' up to berry 'en. Ees, vriends," he went on, looking around and asking, with that glance, the sympathy of all present, "to berry my zon, my clever zon, my only zon."

Nobody spoke for a few seconds. Then the kindly farmer observed—

"Aye, I've heerd zay a' was very clever to his traäde. 'Uxtable an' Co., his employers, spoke very handsome of 'en, they tell me. I can't call to maind, tho', that I've a-zet eyes 'pon the young man since he was a little tacker."

The old man began to fumble in his breastpocket, and drawing out a photograph, handed it across.

"That's the last that was took of 'en."

"Pore young chap," said the farmer, holding the likeness level with his eyes and studying it; "Pore young chap! Zuch a respectable lad to look at! They tell me a' made ye a gude zon, too."

"Gude?" The tears ran down the father's face and splashed on his hands, trembling as they folded over the knob of his stout stick. "Gude? I b'lieve, vriends, ye'll call it gude when a young man zends the third o' his earnin's week by week to help his parents. That's what my zon did, vrum the taime he left whome. An' presunts—never a month went by, but zome little gift ud come by the postman; an' little 'twas he'd got to live 'pon, at the best, the dear lad—"

The farmer was passing back the photograph. "May I see it?" I asked: and the old man nodded.

It was the same face—the same suit, even—that had roused my contempt eighteen months before.