The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/The Mysterious Message
The Mysterious Message
THE MYSTERIOUS MESSAGE
ANY one could see by the air of industry that pervaded the place, that something unusual was going on. Everybody was busy. Three or four switch-engines—noisy little tugs of the rail—were puffing and snorting amid the sea of cars that covered the freight yards. The station agent moved with a quick, nervous step among the clerks, encouraging them by his example to show signs of life. Down at the round-house the day foreman, in a newly washed suit of overclothes, hurried to and fro with crumpled copies of telegrams from the train-master. The boss wiper, with his gang, was clearing the circle in front of the house, of dirty waste and lumps of coal. One of the men was sweeping the turn-table with a new broom. Now a yard engine came by with a freshly painted mail car, and another followed it with a mile or so of empties, reminding you of a little black ant at one end of a fish worm.
The superintendent had gone into the despatcher's office to talk with the train-master about a meeting point for No. 8 and the President's special. This was the new President, who, with the chairman of the Board of Directors, was making his first tour of inspection. Every official of any importance knew that he must meet the new chief and be introduced. Every official knew that a great deal depended upon the impression made upon this occasion. He must have his department in good shape without showing any unusual effort.
Every one must be busy without appearing to try to be. The section boss saw that each man was at his shovel, and waved a "slow" signal himself to show the officials that he did not trust such an important office to his illiterate men. This slow signal would indicate, also, that they had been doing something to the track. The road-master had gone out that morning occupying a camp stool on the rear platform of No. 8.
All these things combined to show to the most casual observer that something was up. In the face of every officer of the road at this particular point there was a look of anxiety, as though he might be repeating:—
"He 'll cut me off or let me stay,
Just as he happens to feel to-day."
The division superintendent, who had just gone into the despatcher's office, was an exception to the rule that all subordinate officials are afraid of a new management. He knew his business and knew he could go with the retiring manager to another road. He simply went about his work without any unnecessary noise. The train-master was of a different caste. He was as nervous as a maiden lady in her first bicycle suit. Having sent the "trick "man away he was handling the trains himself, to make sure that everything was O. K.'d.
"I sent a girl over here yesterday,—an operator—" said the superintendent, after they had fixed the meeting point, "and you sent her away. I have instructed her to call here again this morning, and I hope you will be good enough to put her to work. Her father was the engineer who was killed when the fast mail went in the ditch on the east end, and she is the only support her mother has."
The train-master mumbled something about the company running unnecessary risks for charity's sake, when the superintendent cut him off with the information that there was no charity about it. It was just an act of simple justice and decency, and he hoped the train master would not only give the girl something to do, but that he would take especial care of her and keep her out of trouble. The man at the key said he would endeavor to find a place for her, but he positively refused to be responsible for her. "Then, sir," said the superintendent, "I shall cease to be responsible for you." And there followed a scene, in the midst of which a pale girl slipped into the room and sank upon a seat outside the railing, unobserved by either of the angry officials.
The superintendent, after pacing the room a time or two, paused at one of the windows overlooking the yards. The President's special had for the moment been forgotten by the despatcher, who now turned to the key to send the order for the meeting.
Still smarting from the effect of the tilt with his chief, his mind was disturbed. The pale girl who had seated herself without the railing was the applicant for work whom the trainmaster had turned down the day before.
The office was now as still as death, save for the clicking of the keys and the slow, measured ticking of the great clock above the despatcher's desk,—the clock that marked time for all the clocks on the entire system. Presently the despatcher jerked the key open and began to call Westcreek, and when he got them said:—
"Train No. 8, Conductor Smith, will take siding for special west eng. 88 at Eastcreek."
Now he began calling the operator at Lookout siding and when he answered, the despatcher shot him an order that almost burned the wire:—
"Special west eng. 88 will meet train No. 8 at Westcreek."
The pale girl sprang to her feet. The despatcher turned and saw her, and when he realized that she must have overheard the quarrel between the superintendent and himself, his anger rose against the innocent young woman; and the other official, seeing their embarrassment, quit the room by a side door.
"Mr. Goodlough, you've made a great mistake," said the girl.
"Have I?" shouted the train-master, "and do you expect a salary for correcting me?"
"Look at your sheet. You 've—"
"What?" yelled the man, "do you mean to—"
"For heaven's sake, man," pleaded the girl, "see what you 've done—look at the clock—there 'll be a collision in less than ten minutes. You 'll be a murderer if you fail to save those trains."
"You 're about as crazy as they get," said the despatcher; and really she looked like a mad woman, with her big eyes burning in her pale face. Of a sudden she turned, darted out of the office, and ran down the stair as an actress quits a burning hotel.
"She'd be a bird in a telegraph office," muttered the train-master, going back to his desk. "Ah, well! I'm sorry for her, and glad she's gone. I presume she's lost her mind grieving after her father; but what could have put that fool notion in her head? Can it be—" and then he stopped short, staring at the train sheet in front of him, and one would have thought, to look at him, that his eyes had caught the wild light that was in the eyes of his visitor, and that the malady he seemed to see in her mind had been suddenly transmitted to his. Now he glanced quickly from the sheet to the clock. "Twenty-seven," he said, and he knew by heart that No. 8 was due at Westcreek at twenty-eight, and he reached a trembling hand for the key and began calling the operator. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds went by and no answer came. Forty, fifty, fifty-five seconds, and he fancied he could see the operator standing out in front of the little station with a pen behind his ear and ink on his shirt sleeve. For another five seconds he called, and as the minute wasted it seemed to him that his blood was boiling and his brain on fire. Then he thought of calling Eastcreek to hold the special. The operator, who happened to be at the key about to report, answered quickly, and the despatcher asked, "Where's the special?"
"Gone," said the wire, and the train-master pitched forward fainting among the ink-stands and instruments.
The operator at Westcreek stood in front of the little station, smiling at the road-master on No. 8, and the operator at Eastcreek sat looking through the window at the rear end of the President's private car, puckering up in the distance; and the three drivers, ignorant of the awful mistake, were now dashing, at the rate of a mile a minute, into the open door of death.
The superintendent, who had looked into the ghost-like face of the girl as she passed him on the stair, thought he read there of a wrong done, and returned at once to the despatcher's office, determined to have the matter out with his rebellious train-master. He had entered the office unobserved by the operator and stood directly behind him, and heard him ask Eastcreek where the special was, and heard the answer—"Gone." Of this he made nothing, until the despatcher threw out his arms and fell forward upon his desk; then the superintendent knew that something had gone wrong. A glance at the record of the despatcher's work showed it all. It was nine twenty-nine. The great clock told him that No. 8 had already passed Westcreek, the special had passed Eastcreek; and now there was nothing to do but wait for the collision which, in the narrow, crooked canon, was sure to come.
Tenderly he lifted the limp despatcher from the table and laid him upon the floor. He poured water in his hand and bathed the face of the unfortunate official, but it failed to revive him, and then he called up the hospital, and one of the surgeons came with an ambulance and carried the sick man away.
The superintendent, who was himself an operator, called Eastcreek and told him to let nothing pass that point, west-bound, until further notice from the despatcher's office. Then he sat, for what seemed to him a very long while, listening for either Eastcreek or Westcreek to call to report the collision. A half hour went by and the wire was still silent. "Surely," mused the superintendent, "they can't have all been killed; there must be some one left to tell the tale."
He walked to the window and looked out over the coach yards, and saw the pale girl pacing the platform, waiting for a train to carry her back to her home. Her heart was heavy with dread of the collision, and at thought of returning to her widowed mother with the news of her failure to secure work. The superintendent tapped upon the window with a switch-key, and, when she looked up, beckoned her to him. She shook her head, for she did not wish to face the train-master, now that he had probably found out his awful mistake; but when the official scowled and jerked his head round in the direction of the stairway that led to the despatcher's office, she went to him.
"Take that seat," said the superintendent, pointing to an empty chair at the despatcher's desk. She did as he had told her, and waited tremblingly for the wire to give her something to do.
Mr. Creamer, the first trick man, who had been sent away, having heard of the sudden illness of the train-master, now came hurriedly into the office. The superintendent waved his hand in the direction of the desk where the girl sat. "Keep your seat," said the despatcher as she was about to rise, and after glancing over the work, turned a blanched face to the superintendent. "Where's Tom?" he asked after a pause.
"Gone to the hospital, and I'm afraid he's gone crazy as well."
Then there was a moment of silence, in which the two men gazed helplessly into each other's faces, and listened constantly for a call from Eastcreek or Westcreek. The keys clicked merrily, and the girl, whose cheeks were now burning red, gathered in the reports from the various stations of the coming and going of many trains.
"Sit down," said the superintendent, and the two men took seats near the operator, while the great clock, ticking off the seconds, marched up through the morning. Now they began to discuss softly the probable result of the collision. The special, having a down-hill pull, would be running rapidly as specials usually do. She would be making forty posts, and when her light locomotive came up against the heavy mogul which was helping No. 8, and making twenty, it would be as though she had gone against the side of the canon at sixty miles an hour. It was awful even to think of it. Now there came a message from the general manager, urging the superintendent to get the new President over the road as rapidly as possible, as he was anxious to spend Christmas with his family at Boston. The superintendent read the message, and smiling sadly, as men sometimes do to keep from crying, shook his head slowly and laid the paper down.
"Poor devil!" he said, after a pause,—"just got a good job and now he gets killed," and then the operator at Eastcreek touched the key and said: "No. 8 twenty minutes late;" and fresh color came to the white faces in the despatched office.
When the operator at Westcreek, with the pen behind his ear and ink on his shirt sleeve, quitted the platform and re-entered the office, he heard a hurry-up call for him which came in a quick, nervous way and told him that he was wanted. He answered at once and got this in return: "Hold No. 8,—lap order." The last two words assured him that compliance with this order was necessary to prevent a collision. "No. 8 is gone," he replied. "Hold her T. J. G." came back to him in an instant. The man is crazy, thought the operator, but he would try. As he rushed from the office a light engine was just pulling out of the siding to take water. This locomotive belonged to the crew of a work train, but the train had been left in the siding. The operator sprang into the cab, and shouted to the engineer to pull out and catch No. 8; "lap order," he added, and that was enough. The driver, without waiting for his fireman who was some yards behind, tugging at a stiff switch in an effort to close it, pulled the throttle open and bounded away up the steep grade behind the passenger train. The operator, who was leaning in the window, heard the driver yell, and glancing round got a signal to get into the tank and shovel coal into the furnace. It made little difference under the circumstances where he put the fuel, so long as he got it inside the fire-box, for the rolling, shaking machine levelled it off, and the rapid exhaust burned it out or lifted it in red hot balls through the quivering stack. Now they could see the rear end of No. 8 just whipping a corner. The road-master saw the approaching engine and, as she came nearer, guessed that she was running wild—riderless or that her rider had lost control of her. It might be that the engineer did not see them. Theirs was a heavy train—they were losing time. He remembered that they had been two minutes late at Westcreek. He called the rear flagman, who was "railroading" with a dead-head conductor in the smoking-room of the sleeper. The flagman took in the situation at a glance. His business was to flag, regardless of circumstances and vague possibilities, and before the road-master could stay him, the fearless flagman swung himself round and dropped from the train. By the time he had regained his feet and found his flag, the light engine, uttering a wild shriek, dashed by him. The engineer, to avoid running by a red flag, turned his face to the fireman's side and refused to see the danger signal. Now he was near enough to whistle the other engines "down," and the enginemen pulling the passenger train shut off, and when the driver of the light engine saw a chimney of white steam shoot up from each of the forward locomotives, he knew they had quit, and slowed his own machine accordingly. When they had come up to the train, the operator ran to the rear of No. 8, shouted, "lap order, back up," and hurried over to the head end. The road-master reached for the rope and signalled the engineers to back up, but they wanted to know why, and to assure themselves that the light engine was out of the way. When the operator boarded the mogul, the driver of that monster machine opened the whistle and gave three wild shrieks that told the regular man whose engine was next the train that they ought to back up. As the train began to move back the second man saw the driver of the helper glancing anxiously up the track, and understood by the look upon his face that something was coming. The conductor, who had been in the middle of the train, naturally felt that he was being ignored, and not caring to back up out knowing why, began to apply the automatic air-brakes. The drivers felt it instantly, and the danger of it, and opened their throttles and whistles and began to jam the train back regardless of brakes, and the conductor, taking something of the alarm that was in the cry of the locomotives, released the air.
The driver of the light engine had reversed at once upon dropping the operator, picked up the flagman, and was now backing away for Westcreek at a frightful pace. His fireman, still at the switch, let him in on the siding; No. 8 dropped in after him, and just as the operator and conductor had forced the stub born rails back to the main line, the President's train crashed over the switch.
Not a soul on board the special knew how near they had been to death. Their orders read to meet No. 8 at Westcreek, and there she was, in to clear, just as the daring driver of the special engine had expected to find her.
The conductor of No. 8, with his two engineers, the road-master and operator, wasted five minutes reading, checking, comparing, and examining the orders they had received. They were all signed "T. J. G." by the train-master himself. The thing was plain: he had given a lap order but had discovered his mistake in time, by the good fortune that had left the light engine at Westcreek, to prevent an awful disaster. He was a good fellow and they were all glad he had saved himself, although the incident might work to his embarrassment when he came up for promotion. Incidentally, they were glad that they were alive.
To appreciate the mysterious part of the tale, the reader should understand the value of time—not of hours and minutes, but of seconds—in handling trains on a single track railroad. It will be remembered that Goodlough discovered his mistake at 9-27. No. 8 was due to pass Westcreek at 9-28 and at 9-29 the superintendent had seen the train-master collapse. It will be remembered, also, that No. 8 was two minutes late, but the man who had sent the lap order did not know it, and his nerve would not last until he could find it out. The order to hold No. 8—the order which prevented the collision and doubtless saved many lives—was sent at 9-31. It was signed with the initials of the train-master, but at a time when that gentleman was dead to the world, and had been so for two whole minutes.
No man was in a better position to know these facts than the superintendent, who was the only man in the despatcher's office at the moment when the "mysterious message" flashed over the wire, and whose business it was to investigate the whole matter. As the investigation proceeded, the superintendent became intensely interested in the mystery. For a while he kept the matter to himself, but these things will out, and in less than a month's time the "mysterious message" became the leading topic in shops, cabs, way-cars, and boarding-houses. To say that the clocks were at variance would not satisfy a railroad man, for they had taken time at 9 a. m., only a half hour before the message went out. The operator at Westcreek declared that at the end of the twenty-four hours following the receipt of the "mysterious message," his clock had not varied one second. Not a few of the employees refused to become excited or even interested in the matter. Such things were constantly occurring, they argued. Women had wept for their husbands hours before receiving news of their death. A mother, a thousand miles away, had seen her son killed in a wreck in the Black Cañon, giving not only the day and hour, but the exact moment in which it occurred, describing accurately his appearance after death. A clerk in the treasurer's office said it was simple. The train-master had so longed to send this very message,—doubtless, word for word,—but could not get the operator, that the force of his mind had, in some way (which was not quite clear, even to the clerk), transmitted the message to the wire, so that when the operator at Westcreek touched the key it came to him, not over the wire, perhaps, but direct from the brain of the sender to that of the receiver. It was the great effort, he argued, of transmitting his thought to the operator which caused the train-master to collapse, and not his alarm at the impending collision.
In time, the story of the "mysterious message" came to the ears of the President at Boston, and as his life had been saved by the sending of this wire, which amounted to almost a miracle, he set himself at once to the task of solving the mystery. He belonged to a certain society whose members delight to delve in things occult, and they were not long in accounting for all that had occurred. It fell out later that the treasurer's clerk was also a member of the Boston society to which the President belonged.
The day's work in a despatcher's office is divided into three tricks. The first trick man works from 8 a. m. until 4 p. m., the second from that hour to the end of the day, and the third man works the "death trick,"—in which nearly all the ugly wrecks occur,—from midnight till morning.
"You may go now," said Mr. Creamer to the girl, when the second man came in and took his trick at 4 o'clock.
"Shall I—come—back in the morning?" asked the girl with some embarrassment.
"Yes," was the answer, after a moment's thought.
By a sort of unwritten rule, the first trick man had stepped to the post of train-master when that industrious, but over zealous, officer had fallen; but, having no official notice of his appointment by the superintendent, he felt that he had no right to promote the men under him. The best he could do was to keep his trick, and look after the train-master's work beside. He had, of course,—being a despatcher,—the right to sign his own initials to all orders, prefixing the word "Acting" when signing as train-master. So it came about that the familiar "T. J. G.," the initials of the unfortunate Thomas Jefferson Goodlough, now derailed, disgraced, and possibly deranged, were seen no more at the end of telegrams.
"Whose initials shall I put to this order?" asked the girl, sending her first message on the morning of the second day.
"Your own," said Mr. Creamer, and the receiving operator at Livingston wondered who the new despatcher could be. Every night, after midnight, the operators along the line would ground wire, cutting off the officials, and discuss the new despatcher. Not a few of them felt that they were entitled to promotion, and were in favor of sending a grievance committee in at once. "Who is the new guy?" asked the operator at Lookout one afternoon, when he supposed the second trick man was at the other end of the line.
"Go ahead, 'guy'" said Miss Morgan, for she had not yet been relieved.
"Working the first trick?" said the operator, finishing his query and making it plain. There was a dash of Irish in Minnie Morgan, and she answered without hesitation: "Miles Mulcahy."
"Solid with the new push?"
"Sure," was the girl's answer, and then she shut him off.
It was not long, however, until the trainmen carried the news out over the road that Miles Mulcahy was a woman, but not until the new despatcher had gained something of a reputation as an expert handler of trains. Many an operator who had indorsed the new despatcher upon divers occasions was now sorry he had done so.
A woman operator was bad enough, but a woman despatcher was sure, they argued, to make trouble. A girl at twenty giving orders to gray-haired conductors and storm-faced engineers was a thing that ought not to be. Some of the swift senders tried to rush her, but it; did n't go. The great clock continued to measure off the days, trains arrived and departed on time, the "mysterious message" was still a mystery, and the girl stayed at her post. The superintendent was quietly proud of his protégée and Mr. Creamer was enthusiastic. She knew the road, he had declared to his chief, as the red man knows the forest, and the time card as Father Maloney knew the catechism. "She's just a bird, that's all," he observed to the smiling superintendent; "a reg'ler crockerjack, and. you can't tie her."
The January sun, swinging far and low in the south, sent a stingy ray aslant the window and touched the covers on the sick man's couch. He rubbed his eyes, looked about, and whispered: "Where am I?" but he was not acting. The bare white walls, the iron bedstead, the little table, and the one wooden chair told him that he was in the hospital. A vase of fresh cut roses stood upon the table, and he knew that he had a friend somewhere. He remembered afterwards that the smell of roses was the first thing that was quite clear to him.
"Have I been ill?" he asked of the attendant who now entered the room, for, being an official and able to pay extra, Goodlough had not been placed in the open ward. His malady, too, had been of a nature that required close attention. At times he had been a raving maniac, screaming and calling for help to rescue the President from a burning car.
"Yes," said the nurse, coming cautiously to the sick bed, "you have been very ill. You're all right now, but you must not talk." In a little while the sick man fell asleep again, for the fever had left him very weak.
When he awoke on the following morning his mind was much stronger. His eyes wandered directly to the little table, and there was the vase with fresh flowers, and tears came to the eyes of the sufferer. He wondered, as the days went by, that none of his old friends came to see him. Vaguely he began to recall the past and all that had happened. He wondered how many were killed, but he dared not ask. The few people that he saw seemed so cheerful, and the chief surgeon was always so genial, that he began to hope that things had turned out better than he expected. And there were the flowers, too; somebody sent them, and somebody cared for him still. At the end of another week the superintendent came in to see him, and he, too, was as cheerful and happy as a man could well be. "It is good of you to come and see me," said the sick man. "I don't deserve it."
"You do deserve it," was the reply, "and I have been here many times, but the doctor thought you would be better off alone. Now that you are so strong, though, he says we can all come and see you as often as we will."
"Will Creamer come? I always liked Dan, and his absence has hurt me, but he has not forgotten our past friendship," and the speaker's eyes filled with tears as they rested on the vase.
"He's here now," said the superintendent, touched deeply by the tears and tenderness of the sick man. "Every morning for nearly a month he has called here to ask after you. I shall send him to you at once, and now you must brace up—good-by."
The meeting between Creamer and his sick friend was too much for the patient, and the chief surgeon, who had come in with the visitor, was obliged to send him away almost immediately.
It was nearly a week before any more visitors were admitted to the sick room. Only the flowers came every morning. They were not many but always fresh.
"I'm strong enough to know now, Dan," said the patient when Creamer had been left alone with him, "and I want you to tell me all about it."
"About what, Tom?"
"About the collision—how many were killed?"
Dan assured him that there had been no collision on the road for over a year. "And you," he explained, "have been here just a month to-day—this is the twentieth of January."
"Don't lie to me, Dan,—anybody could do that; but from you I ask the truth, and I think I have a right to expect it. I sent a lap order the day I fell ill. I became confused over the repetition of No. 8 and engine 88, Eastcreek and Westcreek, and I gave a lap order. A girl in the office tried to save me, but I laughed at her. I thought her crazy, and when at last I noticed my mistake I tried to call Westcreek to hold 8, but could not get him. I called and called, up to the last second, but he did not answer and it seemed to me that I must go mad. Suddenly it occurred to me that I might get Eastcreek, and hold the special, but the answer came quick and awful: 'Gone,' and then I knew no more until I smelled the smell of those fresh roses you sent me, and came to life again."
"Now, I 'll tell you the truth, Tom, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as the judge would say," began his visitor. "You did give a lap order, but you saved yourself. Westcreek did answer and got your order to hold No. 8, and he held her, and there was no collision."
"Dan, I never sent that message,—I wanted to. God knows I would gladly have given my life to have saved those poor fellows on the engines; and the new President? Was he killed? Ah! Dan, why don't you tell me the truth?" and the miserable man held out his hand beseechingly.
"I have told the whole truth," said Creamer; "there was no collision." But Goodlough shook his head, his eyes filled with tears, and he turned his pale pinched face to the wall.
The superintendent, whose "long suit," as the road-master expressed it, was "hoss sense," had maintained all along that the transmission of the "mysterious message" was still a mystery. Those occult scientists might sit up nights and work out answers satisfactory to themselves, declared the superintendent, but they would never go at his end of the line. He was not a highly educated man, save in what pertained to the handling of men and machines, trains and traffic. He strove to do the best he could for the company without injuring the community in which he lived. He was popular, and so the new manager kept him. "There must be another solution of this 'mysterious message, "he declared to the President," and I shall find it before the end of the year."
The statement of Goodlough to the effect that he had not sent the message which saved the two trains, made no change in the mind of the superintendent, to whom it was related by Mr. Creamer. At the expiration of forty days the medical staff declared Goodlough sound in body and mind, and the old train-master called upon the superintendent for his decision. He had begun as a messenger-boy in the train master's office on an eastern road, when he could barely reach the top of the high desk. He had been with this company so long that he felt a proprietary interest in the road. He would be glad to return to his old post, but men were usually dismissed for giving a lap order.
"It will not be necessary for us to review this matter," began the superintendent, when Goodlough had seated himself in the private office of his old chief. "Under ordinary circumstances I should feel it my duty to discharge you, but in consideration of your excellent record and other extenuating circumstances, the confusing nature of the numbers of the motives and trains, and the names of stations, I have concluded that I shall serve the company best by allowing you to return to your former place. In doing this I wish you to understand that the matter of personal friendship, which has grown strong in the years that we have spent together, makes no difference in my decision. The sixty days, which I must now give you, is meant more as punishment for your refusal to listen to a well-meant warning which might have saved you, than for your carelessness in giving a wrong order. It is more your misfortune than your fault, however, that you have lost these forty days, therefore your suspension will date from the twentieth of December."
Goodlough thanked the superintendent warmly for his consideration, and went out to begin the hard task of waiting twenty days; for to him, every day spent away from his work was wasted. The old train-master found it impossible to keep away from the office, and, finding a warm welcome from Creamer, spent the greater part of his twenty days where he could hear the rattle of the instruments, and the slow, measured ticking of the great clock. He was interested in, and then amazed at, the work of the young woman who was now handling the trains on the first trick. At first he felt half angry with her for being able to do what he had once made a mess of, but she was so sweetly modest, and so utterly unconscious of herself and so faithful to her work, that he soon found himself wishing she were a man. He said so to Creamer, once, and she heard him. Long before his time was up he had begun to wonder where he could put her, for he had no thought of letting her go. But she was a lucky soul, and it seemed that the same power that sent the ravens to Elijah looked after her. Just about the time Goodlough was to resume his office a connecting road wanted a train-master, and the place was offered to Mr. Creamer. He accepted it, of course. Mr. Goodlough was ordered to report for duty, and having no one he considered competent at hand, allowed Miss Morgan to remain where he had found her. It was understood by all that this arrangement was only temporary, but Goodlough soon learned that he would lose an able assistant when he parted with Miss Morgan, and so was a good while in making a change which all precedent made necessary. The second trick man was entitled to the first, the third man was in line for the second, and if he kept Miss Morgan she must do the "death trick."
The two men were notified by letter of their promotion, and then the train-master braced himself to tell the young lady that she would be transferred to the company's telegraph office, unless she chose to take the third trick, which he felt ashamed to ask her to do. It was only right and fair, she said, and she would be glad to take the third trick. All she wanted was an equal show with the men and no favors. If he could overlook her sex, and forgive her having been born a woman, she would be content to take whatever he had to offer her. "Ye gods," said the train-master to himself, "she makes me ashamed. She's as brave as she is gentle, and as brilliant as she is beautiful." He wondered, now, knowing her, that he had failed to see that she was a very superior woman when he sent her away without the promise, even, of employment.
When the two despatchers who had received notice of promotion came into the train-master's office, they did not appear over joyous. The man who had thus honored them saw that something was wrong, and inquired the cause of it.
"It's just this way," said Killeen, the second trick man. "If you are setting Miss Morgan back because she is incompetent to handle the heavy business on the first trick, we have nothing to say; but if the change is being made because she is a woman, or as a matter of justice to Mr. Ricker and myself, we most respectfully decline a promotion that will work a hardship to this most deserving girl."
"The change was ordered as a matter of justice to you, and in keeping with the policy of the management. However, if you gentlemen are disposed to do the gallant, the young lady can remain where she is. She is thoroughly competent to manage the business, and I can see no reason why she should not have an even break with the rest of us."
So the split trick man who had done the talking, and the "death trick" man who had nodded assent, went away feeling that they had done the proper thing, and the train-master congratulated himself upon the result.
Minnie Morgan was a woman to win a man's heart if he had such a thing to lose, and so, as the spring deepened, Goodlough, who had been too busy all his life to go out into the world and win a heart, discovered, when it was too late, that he was slowly but surely losing his own. Up to now he had been too much occupied with his work to think of love, but, as is usual with such men, when the fever came it was high and unremitting. Miss Morgan, on her side, had pitied Goodlough at first, and then, when he recovered and came back to work, she had learned to respect and soon to admire him. It might have ended there, so far as she was concerned, if he had not fallen in love with her and showed it a dozen times a day, or every time he attempted to hide it; and soon they both loved, and each resolved to keep the secret from the other, but while Cupid held his hands over their eyes the world looked on and laughed.
Soon the summer came with moonlight excursions to the mountains and boat rides on the star-lit lakes. They parted late at night only to meet again in the morning. The days, that were all too short, flashed by as mile-posts pass the window of an express train. In time the summer went out of the skies, the frost came and killed the flowers, but the summer stayed in their hearts and kept them glad.
It was winter without. The snow lay in deep drifts upon the pilots of locomotives that came down from the hills, and hid the tops of incoming freight trains. Miss Morgan stood at the window overlooking the yards. An old storm-stained work engine stood in front of the station, toil-worn and weary,—leaking like a sieve,—and the water, dripping through her fire-box, had frozen and hung icicles upon her very grates. Her driver, looking as rusty as his engine, was coming up the stair to tell the despatcher that he was not yet in and would not be for ten minutes, and the despatcher erased the arrival and put him in ten minutes later, so that the engineer might not get ten days for fast running. He was a hero, this man, begrimed as he was with soot and grease, for this was the engine, and he the engineer who had outrun the Atlantic express a year ago and saved that train, as well as the President's special.
The train-master came in with a sad face and a heavy heart. He remembered that it was just a year ago to-day that he had turned a pale-faced young woman away, not because there was no room for her, but (he blushed to admit it) because she was a woman. And now that same woman was doing a man's work. More, she could enslave him with a glance or bind him with a single strand of her silken hair. He knew this and knew that she knew it, and resolved not to let another day dawn before he had told her everything.
Miss Morgan was sad, too, for she had lost a secret,—not of her love, for that was no secret; but she had just revealed to the superintendent the true story of the "mysterious message." For a long time he had guessed that she knew something about it, but had refrained from calling her up for fear of forcing her to utter a falsehood. He had himself nearly told an untruth, at the very beginning of the examination, when he declared that he had every reason to believe that she held the secret. At first she was inclined to be obstinate, but when he appealed to her sense of honor and urged her to clear up a mystery, which was really no mystery, according to his belief, and thus prevent the employees from growing superstitious and relying too much upon an unseen power to take care of trains, she saw the wisdom and justice of his argument and gave way.
The superintendent was happy. He had promised to have an answer for the President by the end of the year, and this was the last week but one. Miss Morgan's story was all the more timely because the President would arrive on the morrow, and the superintendent was anxious to convince him that the average occult expert, who makes a specialty of "seeing things nights," knew about as much of the future, or of things unknown, as the codfish out in the Atlantic.
There was a sound of singing bells, and the low squeak of iron sleigh shoes upon the white carpet of the earth, for Goodlough, after hours, was tightening the reins over a handsome team. Miss Morgan was by his side, cuddling close in her furs to avoid the flying snow and the cold twilight. When the horses had grown quiet, so as not to require all his time and strength, the train-master turned to his fair companion, and reminded her that this was the nineteenth day of December.
"Yes," she said.
"It was a year ago to-day that I first saw you—and—"
"Turned me down," said the girl, darting a quick glance at the train-master, which was followed by a pretty blush.
"But I know you now," he went on, feeling himself at a disadvantage, "and I have but one regret, and that is—"
"That I am a woman."
"Never," he declared earnestly. "It is that I did not know you sooner."
"But you have said so. I heard you tell Mr. Creamer that you were sorry I was not a man."
"Then I was thinking only of your work—now I am thinking only of you. I liked your work, but I—I love you."
Now for the first time he looked her full in the face. It was a great deal for him to say, for, unlike most men, he had not said the same before. He felt relieved, somehow, having it out, and looked as if he were glad he had said it. Miss Morgan, in addition to looking radiantly lovely, looked straight ahead.
"Minnie" (he began very deliberately now), "I did turn you down a year ago, and I know now that it meant a great deal to you, but if you turn me down to-day it means a million times more to me. It means a life of joy or one of sorrow; all happiness—even the faintest hope of it—aye, life itself."
She was still silent, but he had begun instinctively to feel himself secure. He was almost happy. He felt like joking with her. He wanted to ask if her wire were down, but he dared not risk so much,—she was too serious. Liquor makes some men sad, others it makes silly, and so it is with the intoxication of love. Goodlough was almost foolishly glad, and yet she had given him no word of encouragement. Presently his left arm stole away, and he asked her seriously for her love, her companionship for life; and she hid her face, but not in her furs.
The morning broke clear and beautiful, and the crisp air was full of the sounds of clanging bells and the screams of switch engines. Express wagons came down laden with boxes and packages—bundles of sunshine—that would find their way to hundreds of homes, and gladden the hearts of thousands of people. Everybody was busy, for the President of the road was to arrive to-day. When Goodlough left his private office and wandered into the big room where the despatches worked, he heard Miss Morgan calling Westcreek, and when Westcreek answered, heard her say:—
"Train No. 8, Conductor Smith, will take siding for special west engine 88, at Eastcreek."
She was making a meeting point for the President's special which, by a strange coincidence, was coming over the division again on the 20th of December. A year ago to the hour almost to the minute he had endeavored to do what she was now doing, and had failed. She had tried to help him, he would help her now, if she went wrong; and he listened until the operator at Lookout siding answered, and she said:—
"Special west engine 88 will meet train No 8 at Eastcreek."
"Bravo," cried the train-master. "That's exactly what I was trying to do a year ago, only I said 'Westcreek' at the last."
"On time," said Miss Morgan, still working the key.
After glancing about for a few minutes, Goodlough returned to his office, and sent out a bulletin promoting the operator at Lookout to be train despatcher on the third trick. The same order put the two old despatchers a step nearer the presidency of the road. The bulletin named the second trick man to be day despatcher "to succeed Miss Morgan, assigned to other duties."
He had barely finished this pleasant task, when the superintendent came in with the President, whom Goodlough had never met. When they were all seated, the superintendent asked the train-master to relate what he knew about the so-called "mysterious message."
"I know absolutely nothing," declared Goodlough, earnestly, for the subject was naturally embarrassing to him.
"You told Mr. Creamer, I believe, that you were positive that you did not send the order to Westcreek to hold No. 8, although your initials went with it," said the superintendent, with the air of a lawyer cross-examining a witness.
"And you do not know who sent the message?"
"I do not."
"Well, I do," said the superintendent with a broad smile, "and I 'll let you gentlemen into the secret. The mysterious message is no longer a mystery. When Miss Morgan saw, or rather heard, your mistake, she endeavored to convince you that you were in error, but failed. Despairing, she left the building. She was almost wild with grief and alarm. I saw her face as she hurried down the stair, and it was the face of a mad woman. I read it wrong, and returned at once to you to learn the cause of her distress. I heard you call Eastcreek and ask for the special,—your last message that day,—and heard the answer 'Gone' and saw you fall. But the frail woman whom you had turned away, did not fail. While you fell fainting among the ink-stands and instruments she rushed into the hotel over the way, and finding no one in the Western Union office, took the key and began calling Westcreek. She could not see the clock as you did, and she called, and called; and when at last the operator answered she told him to hold No. 8. 'No. 8 is gone,' said the operator. 'Hold her,' said the wire back at him, and fearing the operator might question the message, she sent your initials at the end of the order. It was her persistency in ordering the operator to hold an express train that had already gone by, that inspired the agent with the idea of following the train. You know the rest."
"Who is this woman?" asked the President, and the superintendent told him the story of the girl—of her father's death; how she had been called to the despatcher's desk in a dire emergency and kept there from day to day until the train- master had recovered and resumed his office. And then, when one of the despatchers had gone to another road, she had been kept as day despatcher, and all this time she had kept the secret of how she had saved the two trains and possibly the President's life. Every one seemed to regard her as a sort of heroine, but nobody knew exactly why.
"Brave girl!" cried the President, rising and beginning to pace the floor, for he was deeply affected by the story of how a young woman, who, but a day before had been refused employment by the company, had contrived to save the company's property and the lives of men whom she had not known. "She shall have the company's check for a thousand," the President added. "You will furnish her with transportation," he continued, addressing the superintendent, "and have her report to me at the Boston office the first of the year. We need a trustworthy operator in the general office the pay is good and the hours easy."
"Miss Morgan reports to the train-master," said the superintendent, smiling and waving a hand toward Goodlough, who sat pale and silent, like a man who had just received a hard fall.
The suggestion of our heroine's going to Boston brought him to his feet. "Miss Morgan will not be in the company's employ after to-day," he said, looking steadily at the President.
"Has she been dismissed?"
"She has been promoted, and is to take her new place on New Year's day."
"Have you anything better for her than what I can offer?" asked the President, for he did not relish the thought of a train-master questioning the wisdom and justice of his order.
"Are you a married man?" asked the train master.
"I am, but what has that to do with the matter?"
"In that case I think I have something better for her than you can offer."
"May I ask what office she is to take?" inquired the President, glancing from the train-master to the superintendent, who was still smiling.
"She is to be Mrs. Goodlough," said the train-master with a stern, calm face.
"Accept my congratulations," said the President, holding out his hand. "This is the second time, then, she has saved your life," he continued as Goodlough took his hand; "and I hope you will allow her to accept my personal check for another thousand, for she saved mine as well."
Goodlough was greatly affected by the news of Miss Morgan's heroism, and the conduct of the President and superintendent of the road. He kept clear of the despatched office that day, for he dared not trust himself in her presence.
After the departure of the President, he had visited his chief and heard the story of Miss Morgan's achievements over again. So she had kept the secret for a whole year and revealed it only at the earnest request of the superintendent, who, since the family's misfortune, had been almost a father to her. He had helped her establish her mother at this place, where they were now living comfortably. That evening, when Minnie's mother had retired to her room, and the lovers were left alone together in the little lamp-lit parlor, they looked at each other in silence for a moment.
"What distresses you?" asked Miss Morgan.
"And you?" inquired the train-master.
"Order No. 76," was her reply. "I 've lost my place."
"And found a friend, a lover,–aye, a husband and happiness, I hope."
"And what have you found?"
"The sender of the 'mysterious message,'" said Goodlough, advancing to where his sweetheart sat.
"Did he tell you?"
"Yes, and he told the President, and you are to be rewarded handsomely by the company whose property you saved, and the President is not sorry he's alive. And I? How shall I repay you for all that you have done for me?"
"By pardoning me for forging your name to the message, and becoming cheerful, and shortening your office hours,–and well, if anything more occurs to me I 'll tell you later."
"Then you did send the message?"
"And how about the flowers that came to the hospital every day, the red roses whose breath called me back to life? "
"Yes," she said, and the little hand stole into his and nestled there.
And then they talked on for just a little while. She forgot that she was out of employment, and he forgot the lap order of a year ago. The lamp burned low. He lighted a match to look at his watch, and it was neither yesterday nor to-morrow, but just between, and then, as all telegraphers do at the end of the day, she gave him "good-night," and he went away.