Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Pleasant conversable fellows on a journey

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Does anyone know them, I wonder? Will anyone have the least spark of pity for a timid man who, in these locomotive days, weakly confesses himself to be no traveller?—and who, under the misery of an unavoidable journey, suffered one of those friends who speak of themselves as “always on the line,” to beguile him out of the snug empty carriage he had subsided into, on the plea that “the next best thing to a good carriage is good company.”

I was that man, helpless in my friend’s hands, and trying to do a little off hand bravery, in feeble emulation of his “always-on-the-line” nonchalance. I dare say my carelessness was not a success; I know it was mixed up with a strange desire to ask my better-informed friend how many tunnels there were on my route, and whether they were very long ones. But shame helped me, and I refrained. I took, also, silently and in great humility, my seat in the carriage which it pleased him to point out. And when the train became uneasy, and showed symptoms of a bolt, looking once more in through the window, he nodded slightly to my fellow-travellers, and gave me comfort in a whispered aside—

“You’ll do, now,” he said; “pleasant conversable fellows on a journey.”

I don’t know that I liked the notion. It may be ultra-English, perhaps, but certainly it seems to me that the sensation of being whirled rapidly through the fresh air does not induce a longing for conversation, but rather predisposes one to silence. I looked at my companions, however, grimly enough from my corner. There were only three of them—a wiry man, with white hair, whose cheek-bones looked as if the skin was too tight for them, and they must inevitably burst it; a dyspeptic-looking individual; and a man, whose face I I could not see, as he had got behind his newspaper, but from the way in which he rustled that same paper, and gave vent to an occasional “H’m, h’m,” I concluded that he was a nervous man. As they all were or seemed to be, reading, I had opportunity for a copious analysis of expression and feature, if I had felt disposed for it; and I was just in the act of calculating, from the legs and other portions of body which were visible to me, what sort of face might appertain to the third individual, when its owner lowered the paper, and cut short my examination with horrible abruptness.

“Another frightful railway collision,” said the nervous man, solemnly. “Travelling is becoming a thing of positive danger. It’s awful!”

And he placed a finger, which trembled either with the motion of the carriage or from neuralgic causes, on a column of the paper.

“Humph!” said the dyspeptic man. “Did you ever happen to be in at the death—I mean, in at a collision, sir?”

“I cannot say I ever did,” was the agitated response.

“Ah! it’s not a pleasant thing.”

“So I should imagine. I was once in a train when it took fire. The screams of the women were appalling, perfectly. We happened, fortunately, to be near a station, or I don’t know what the consequences would have been. And that is a casualty which may occur at any moment.”

“I was once in for a collision,” said the dyspeptic. “The only sensation I can think of in connection with it is what I should suppose to be implied by the figure of speech, ‘pitched into the middle of next week.’ That at least was my first feeling; the next was one of violent anger against a lady whose head had butted like a battering-ram into my chest. I suppose she could not help it, and I dare say I was not the only sufferer by the contact, but people should be more careful how they sit. My digestion has never been right since. With the exception of that, I sustained no injury, which was fortunate, as there were a few people killed, and some disagreeably wounded. I also once travelled in a carriage whose several joints were in such a state of disunion that I positively at times held my breath in terror, expecting every minute that the thing would smash under me. At the first station I called the guard, of course. He just gave a look at my carriage, and shook his head at it knowingly.

‘Oh, it’s that customer again, is it? He’s at his old tricks. He’ll drop to pieces one of these line days. Come along, sir, I’ll find you another.

“What line was that on?” inquired the nervous man.

“When one thinks,” proceeded the dyspeptic, disregarding the question, “of the trivial causes which will produce railway accidents, the only wonder is that there are not more. I have heard it asserted that so slight a thing as the burrowing of a mole is enough to throw a whole train off the line, by causing the sleeper to sink. Whether it is true or not—”

A voice interrupted the speaker. By the way, I put it to any candid and unbiassed traveller, whether these, my companions, were such as he would choose, under the head of pleasant conversable fellows on a journey? But that is an aside. I was following with painful minuteness the scene of the mole’s burrow, the sunk sleeper, and the train pitched over an embankment, when the voice above-mentioned, to my unspeakable, but alas! only momentary satisfaction, broke the dyspeptic thread. It was a deep, hollow voice, and it proceeded from the chest of the wiry man. And it said, “I once had an adventure—” It paused at a groan which I tried to smother in my big plaid; while the two other pleasant fellows bristled up with a ghoulish expectation.

“I once had a little adventure in a railway carriage, which may strike you gentlemen as at least uncommon. It occurred in the closing stage of a pretty long journey, and upon a branch line, on which, fortunately for me, there was little traffic. I must premise, however, that there were two lines of rail. In changing carriages I was tired and stupid, and got into the first which offered itself, rather glad to find that it had no other occupant. And as I calculated that there were full two hours of slow travelling before me, I made myself as snug as circumstances would permit, and the result is simple. I fell fast asleep. I had all sorts of fantastic dreams, of course, as one does have in unusual positions; but what waked me? I did not know; nor why I felt constrained to start up with a horrible misgiving at my heart, as I opened my eyes. It was pitch-dark. The light in the roof had gone out, or else had never existed. But where were we, and why was it dark? Above all, why were we not moving, and why did the darkness grow upon me as something that could be felt? There is a song about the beating of one’s own heart; it was, indeed, the only sound I heard as I made my way to the window. I could see nothing but the luminous rings which came as I beat my eyelids together, vainly; I could not see my hand before me; I could only feel. I tried my waistcoat pocket for a fusee box—found it; there were but two matches, and I struck one desperately. Oh, the glorious beauty of that light! transient as it was; the utter miserable darkness which followed, as it sputtered for a moment and then went out. It had showed me nothing but a ghastly heap in one corner, which I started from nervously, remembering the next moment that it was my own coat and wrap. I shouted, but there was no one to answer, while the sound of my own voice told me where I was. I knew all about it by that time, though I tried to fight off the conviction. I had got into the last carriage in the train, and had been left behind; not under the broad sky, where the starlight might have helped me, but in a tunnel, and alone. That was the crowning horror. Why should this last carriage have been the only one left, as it must have been, for I had shouted loud enough to rouse the seven sleepers; and why was there no one in it but myself? I knew the tunnel and its length, but whereabouts in its hideous blackness was I? Should I get out? I tried the doors, but they were locked; I could perhaps have scrambled through one of the windows, but to what purpose, and on which side? Stretching out my hand, I tried to feel for the wall of the tunnel, shuddering as I thought it would meet me clammy and stone-cold, like the hand of a corpse. But I could not reach it. Was it the other side? I passed over to try. Hush! What was that? I drew back my arm instinctively, and sunk down a helpless mass on my seat again. Do you know what it was, gentlemen, that I heard then? It was the snort of a distant engine. Everywhere before me I saw the glare of two ferocious eyes, like the eyes of a wild beast in his den, and I knew that every snort was bringing the monster steadily closer. Which line of rails was it upon? Nearer still. Another minute—less—and where should I be? Mutilated fragments of a human body once my own, whirling away in all directions, rose up to answer that question as it passed through my mind. Nearer still. It takes but a second, say the wise and learned, to bring before a man his whole life; but in that strange moment, instinct as it was with a horrible and fascinated excitement, I saw only the ferocious eyes, and heard the voice of my young brother, dead long years ago, calling upon me to come and save him, as he was wont to do in his delirium. Nearer still—and the earth quivered beneath me, and thunder filled my ears. There was a whirling rush, a quick wind, and then the roar going off into the distance again. When I could think of myself, I found that I was sitting doubled up, shrinking as a man would from a threatened blow, and my hands were clenched till I felt the smart of the nails in my flesh. The train had chanced to be on the other line of rails, or—I had not been sitting here now to speak of it. An engine was dispatched to bring up the missing carriage, as soon as the fact of its having been left behind was discovered. And so ended my little adventure,—in good time, for this is your station, I think, gentlemen.”

And the nervous man and the dyspeptic got out. The hero of the little adventure looked at me, and coughed twice; then he sneezed; but my eyes were sealed in the energy of despair, and finding his case hopeless, he suffered me to do the rest of the journey in silence, with a buzzing brain, and the mental resolution of a timid man, who will never again suffer himself to be beguiled into putting himself in the power of “Pleasant conversable fellows on a journey.”

Louis Sand.