The Snowbound Train
The Great Snow began on the evening of December 19th. Shoppers smiled as they hurried home, speculating on the chances of a White Christmas. Their hopes were dampened when they turned on their wireless to learn from the smooth impersonal voice of the B.B.C. announcer that an anti- cyclone was callously wending its way from the North-West of Ireland; and on the 20th the warmth arrived, turning the snow to drizzle and the thin white crust to muddy brown. “Not this year!” sighed the disappointed sentimentalists as they slipped sadly through the slush.
But on the 21st the snow returned, this time in earnest. Brown became white again. The sounds of traffic were deadened. Wheel marks, foot marks, all marks, were blotted out as soon as they were made. The sentimentalists rejoiced. It snowed all day and all night. On the 22nd it was still snowing. Snowballs flew, snowmen grew. Sceptical children regained their belief in fairyland, and sour adults felt like Santa Claus, buying more presents than they had ever intended. In the evening the voice of the announcer, travel- ling through endless white ether, informed the millions that more snow was coming. The anti-cyclone from the North- West of Ireland had got lost in it.
More snow came. It floated down from its limitless source like a vast extinguisher. Sweepers, eager for their harvest, waited in vain for the snow to stop. People wondered whether it would ever stop.
It grew beyond the boundaries of local interest. By the 23rd it was news. By the 24th it was a nuisance. Practical folk cursed. Even the sentimentalists wondered how they were going to carry out their programmes. Traffic was dislocated. Cars and motor-coaches lost themselves. Railway gangs fought snowdrifts. The thought of the thaw, with its stupendous task of conversion, became increasingly alarming. The elderly bore, however, who formed one of half a dozen inmates of a third-class compartment on the 11.37 from Euston, refused to be alarmed. In fact, although the train had come to an unofficial halt that appeared to be permanent, he pooh-poohed the whole thing as insignificant with the irritating superiority of a world-traveller.
“If you want to know what snow’s really like,” he remarked to the young lady next to him, “you ought to try the Yukon.”
“Ought I?” murmured the young lady obediently.
She was a chorus girl, and her own globe-trotting had been limited to the provincial towns. Her present destina- tion was Manchester, which in this weather seemed quite far enough off.
“I remember once, in Dawson City, we had a month of snow,” the bore went on, while the young man on his other side thought, “My God, is he starting off again?” “It was in ’99. No, ’98. Well, one or the other. I was a kid at the time. We got sick of the damn stuff!”
“Well, I’m sick of this damn stuff,” answered the chorus girl, twisting her head towards the window. All she saw was a curtain of white flakes. “How much longer are we going to wait here, does anybody think? We must have stopped an hour.”
“Thirty-four minutes,” corrected the tall, pale youth opposite, with a glance at his wrist-watch. He did not have spots, but looked as though he ought to have had. His unhealthy complexion was due partly to the atmosphere of the basement office in which he worked, and partly to a rising temperature. He ought to have been in bed.
“Thank you,” smiled the chorus girl. “I see one’s got to be careful when you’re around!”
The clerk smiled faintly. He was impressed by the chorus girl’s beauty. A real, die-hard platinum blonde. Marvellous person to take out to supper, if one had the courage for that sort of thing. He believed the bore would have had the courage and had noted the man’s quick little, half-sly glances between his egotistical statements. He even believed the chorus girl might accept an invitation. There was something vulnerable about her which her assurance attempted to cloak. But the clerk was even more impressed by the other young lady in the compartment, the one who was sitting on the other side of the bore. To take her out to supper would provide more than a momentary thrill; it would entirely upset one’s work. She was dark. She had a tall, supple figure. (The chorus girl was rather small.) He felt sure she played a good game of tennis, swam and rode. He visualised her cantering over moors and sailing over five-barred gates, with her brother trying vainly to catch her up. Her brother was sit- ting in the corner opposite her. You knew it was her brother from their conversation, and you could also see it from their resemblance. They called each other David and Lydia. Lydia was the next to speak.
“This is getting the limit!” she exclaimed. Her voice had a low, rich quality. “What about interviewing the guard again and asking if there’s any hope of moving before next June?”
“I asked him ten minutes ago,” said the bore. “I won’t repeat what he said!”
“Not necessary,” yawned David. “We have imaginations.” “Yes, and it seems we’ll need our imaginations tonight!” chimed in the chorus girl. “I’ll have to imagine I’m in Manchester!”
“Will you? We shall have to imagine we are at a Christ- mas house-party,” smiled Lydia, “sleeping on downy beds. By the way, if we’re in for an all-night session I hope the railway company will supply hot-water bottles!” Suddenly she caught the clerk’s eye. She surprised the admiration in it, and was kind. “What will you have to imagine?” she asked. The catastrophe of the snowdrift and the camaraderie of Christmas were loosening tongues. The bore alone had needed no encouragement.
The clerk coloured, though his cheeks were already flushed with fever. “Eh? Oh! An aunt,” he jerked.
“If she’s like mine, she’s best left to the imagination!” laughed Lydia. “But then she probably isn’t.”
The clerk’s aunt was not like Lydia’s aunt. She was even more trying. But her dutiful nephew visited her periodically, partly for the sake of his financial future, and partly because he had a secret weakness for lonely people.
A little silence fell upon the party. The only one who thought it mattered was the chorus girl. A nervous restlessness possessed her soul, and she declared afterwards that she was sure she had been the first to move unconsciously into the shadow of coming events. “Because, goodness, I was all on edge,” she said, “and why should I have been, I mean nothing had happened yet, and so far the old man in the corner hadn’t opened his mouth. I don’t believe he’d even opened his eyes, he might have been dead. And then, don’t forget, he was right opposite me! And they say I’m psychic.”
But her vague anticipations were not centred solely in the old man in the corner. She, too, had noticed the quick little, half-sly glances of the elderly bore, who, as she knew, was not too elderly to think about her in a certain way. She had also noticed the clerk’s eyes upon her leg, and the rather studious avoidance of any such vulgar interest on the part of the other young man. If Jessie Noyes was very conscious of her physical attractions she claimed it was her business to be. She was well aware of both her power and the limitation of her power, and while the power, despite its small thrills, gave her a secret dread, the limitation was a secret sorrow. How wonderful to be able to conquer a man wholly and eternally, instead of being just an ephemeral taste! Still, she was not bitter. She was anxious and nervous and warm. Life was life….
Driven now by her restlessness, and finding the silence unendurable, she broke it by suddenly exclaiming: “Well, let’s go on! That’s only four of us! What will you have to imagine?”
The question was addressed, not too wisely, to the bore. “Me? Imagine?” he answered. “I don’t know it’s my habit to imagine. Take things as they come—good, bad, or indifferent—that’s my motto. You learn that when you’ve knocked around as I have.”
“Perhaps I can be more interesting,” said the old man in the corner, opening his eyes suddenly.
He was neither dead nor asleep. As a matter of fact, he had heard every word that had been uttered since the train had steamed out of Euston at 11.37, and the probability of this made more than one of the five people who now turned to him feel a little uncanny. Not that he had heard anything he should not have heard; but a man who listens with his eyes closed, and whose eyes themselves become so peculiarly alive when they are opened—these eyes were like little lamps illuminating things invisible to others—is not the best tonic for frayed nerves.
“Please do, sir,” answered David, after a short pause. “And invent a really good story for us—ours have been most definitely dull.”
“Oh, mine is interesting without any invention,” replied the old man, “and also, incidentally, rather appropriate to the season. I am on my way to interview King Charles the First.” “Really! With head, or without?” inquired David politely. “With, I trust,” the old man responded. “I am informed he is quite complete. We are to meet in an old house at Naseby. Frankly I am not very confident that the interview will occur. Charles the First may be bashful, or he may turn out to be just some ordinary cavalier hiding from Cromwell and Fairfax. After three hundred years, identity becomes a trifle confused.” He smiled with cynical humour. “Or, again, he may be—non est. Simply the imagination of certain nervous people who think they have seen him about. But, of course,” he added, after pursing his thin lips, “there is some possibility that he really is about. Yes, yes; if that over-maligned and over-glorified monarch did visit the house on the day of his defeat, and if the house’s walls have stored up any emotional incidents that I can set free, we may add an interesting page to our history.” “Don’t think me rude,” exclaimed Lydia, “but do you really and truly believe in that sort of thing?”
“Exactly what do you mean by ‘that sort of thing’?” asked the old man.
His tone was disapproving. The elderly bore took up the battle. “Spooks and ghosts!” he grunted. “Pooh, I say! Stuff and nonsense! I’ve seen the Indian rope trick—yes, and exploded it! In Rangoon. ’23.”
“Spooks and ghosts,” repeated the old man, his disapproval now diverted to the bore. The guard’s voice sounded from a corridor in the distance. Though faint, the source of that was solid enough. “H’m—terms are deceptive. The only true language has no words, which explains, sir, why some people who speak too many words have no understanding.”
“Now if, by your expression spooks and ghosts, you imply conscious emanations, aftermaths of physical existence capable of independent functioning of a semi-earthly charac- ter, well, then I probably do not believe in that sort of thing. There are others, of course, whose opinions I respect, who disagree with me. They consider that you, sir, are doomed to exist perpetually in some form or other. That is, perhaps, a depressing thought. But if, by spooks and ghosts, you imply emanations recreated by acute living sensitiveness or intelligence from the inexhaustible store-houses of the past, then I do believe in that sort of thing. Inevitably.”
The elderly bore was temporarily crushed. So was the chorus girl. But the brother and sister, anxious to be au fait with every phase of progressive thought, if only to discard it, and equipped with sufficient fortitude to withstand its shocks, were intrigued.
“Reduced to words of not more than two syllables,” said David, “you mean we can conjure up the past?”
“Conjure up is not a happy term,” answered the old man. “It suggests magic, and there is nothing magical in the process. We can reveal—expose—the past. The past is ineradicable.”
“Bosh!” exclaimed the bore.
He did not like being crushed. The old man who had crushed him bent forward to repeat the operation.
“What is a simple gramophone record but a record of the past?” he demanded, tapping the bore on the knee. “Caruso is dead, but we can hear his voice to-day. This is not due to invention, but to discovery, and if the discovery had occurred three hundred years ago I should not have to travel to Naseby to hear Charles the First’s voice—if, that is, I am to hear it. But Nature does not wait upon our discoveries. That is a thing so many ignoramuses forget. Her sound-waves, light-waves, thought-waves, emotional-waves—to mention a few of those which come within the limited range of our particular senses and perceptions—all travel ceaselessly, some without interruption, some to find temporary prisons in the obstructions where they embed themselves. Here they may diminish into negligible influences, or—mark this—they may be freed again. The captured waves, of course, are merely a fragment from the original source. Potentially everything that has ever existed, everything born of the senses, can be recovered by the senses. Fortunately, sir, there will be no gramophone record of your recent expletive; nevertheless, in addition to its mere mark on memory, your ‘Bosh’ will go on for ever.”
The bore, rather surprisingly, put up a fight, though it was something in the nature of a death struggle.
“Then here is another Bosh to keep it company!” he snapped. “You need never fear for the loneliness of your words,” replied the old man.
“And what about your words?”
“They will go on, too. But it is unlikely that any future generation will recapture our present conversation. In spite of our obvious distaste for each other, our emotions are hardly virile enough. They will soon fade even from our own memories. But suppose—yes, sir, suppose they sud- denly grow explosive? Suppose you leap upon me with a knife, plunging it into the heart of Mr. Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, then indeed some future person sitting in this corner may become uncomfortably aware of a very unpleasant emotion.”
He closed his eyes again; but his five travelling-companions all received the impression that he was still seeing them through his lids. The solid guard, passing along the corridor at that moment, was turned to with relief, although he had no comfort to offer.
“I’m afraid I can’t say anything,” he replied to inquiries, repeating a formula of which he was weary. “We’re doing all we can, but with the line blocked before and behind, well, there it is.”
“I call it disgraceful!” muttered the bore. “Where’s the damned breakdown gang or whatever they call themselves?” “We’re trying to get assistance, we can’t do more,” retorted the guard.
“How long do you expect we’ll stick here?” “I’d like to know that myself, sir.”
“All night?” asked Lydia. “Maybe, miss.”
“Can one walk along the line?” “Only for a bit. It’s worse beyond.”
“Oh, dear!” murmured the chorus girl. “I must get to Manchester!”
“I asked because I was wondering whether there was another line or station near here,” said Lydia.
“Well, there’s Hemmersby,” answered the guard. “That’s a branch line that joins this at Swayton; but I wouldn’t care to try it, not this weather.”
“It’s this weather that gives us the incentive,” David pointed out. “How far is Hemmersby?”
“I shouldn’t care to say. Five or six miles, p’r’aps.” “Which way?”
The guard pointed out of the corridor window.
“Yes, but we couldn’t carry our trunks!” said Lydia. “What would happen to them?”
The guard gave a little shrug. Madness was not his concern, and he came across plenty.
“They would go on to their destination,” he replied, “but I couldn’t say when they’d turn up.”
“According to you,” smiled David, “they’d turn up before we would.”
“Well, there you are,” said the guard.
Then he continued on his way, dead sick of it.
There was a little silence. Lydia turned her head from the corridor and stared out of the window next to her.
“Almost stopped,” she announced. “Well, people, what about it.”
“Almost is not quite,” answered her brother cautiously. A second little silence followed. Jessie Noyes gazed at the tip of her shoe, fearful to commit herself. The flushed clerk seemed in the same condition. The bore’s expression, on the other hand, was definitely unfavourable.
“Asking for trouble,” he declared, when no one else spoke. “If none of you have been lost in a snowstorm, I have.”
“Ah, but that was in Dawson City,” murmured David, “where snow is snow.”
Then a startling thing happened. The old man in the corner suddenly opened his eyes and sat upright. He stared straight ahead of him, but Jessie, who was in his line of vision, was convinced that he was not seeing her. A moment later he swerved round towards the corridor. Beyond the corridor window something moved; a dim white smudge that faded out into the all-embracing snow as they all watched it.
“The other line—yes, yes, quite a good idea,” said the old man. “A merry Christmas to you all!”
He seized his bag from the rack, leapt across the corridor, jumped from the train, and in a few seconds he, too, had faded out.
“There goes a lunatic,” commented the elderly bore, “if there ever was one!