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    The Scotch Express

    by Stephen Crane
    • Rate it:
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    The entrance to Euston Station is of itself sufficiently imposing. It
    is a high portico of brown stone, old and grim, in form a casual
    imitation, no doubt, of the front of the temple of Nike Apteros, with a
    recollection of the Egyptians proclaimed at the flanks. The frieze,
    where of old would prance an exuberant processional of gods, is, in this
    case, bare of decoration, but upon the epistyle is written in simple,
    stern letters the word "EUSTON." The legend reared high by the gloomy
    Pelagic columns stares down a wide avenue, In short, this entrance to a
    railway station does not in any way resemble the entrance to a railway
    station. It is more the front of some venerable bank. But it has another
    dignity, which is not born of form. To a great degree, it is to the
    English and to those who are in England the gate to Scotland.

    The little hansoms are continually speeding through the gate, dashing
    between the legs of the solemn temple; the four-wheelers, their tops
    crowded with luggage, roll in and out constantly, and the footways beat
    under the trampling of the people. Of course, there are the suburbs and
    a hundred towns along the line, and Liverpool, the beginning of an
    important sea-path to America, and the great manufacturing cities of the
    North; but if one stands at this gate in August particularly, one must
    note the number of men with gun-cases, the number of women who surely
    have Tam-o'-Shanters and plaids concealed within their luggage, ready
    for the moors. There is, during the latter part of that month, a
    wholesale flight from London to Scotland which recalls the July throngs
    leaving New York for the shore or the mountains.

    The hansoms, after passing through this impressive portal of the
    station, bowl smoothly across a courtyard which is in the center of the
    terminal hotel, an institution dear to most railways in Europe. The
    traveler lands amid a swarm of porters, and then proceeds cheerfully to
    take the customary trouble for his luggage. America provides a
    contrivance in a thousand situations where Europe provides a man or
    perhaps a number of men, and the work of our brass check is here done by
    porters, directed by the traveler himself. The men lack the memory of
    the check; the check never forgets its identity. Moreover, the European
    railways generously furnish the porters at the expense of the traveler.
    Nevertheless, if these men have not the invincible business precision of
    the check, and if they have to be tipped, it can be asserted for those
    who care that in Europe one-half of the populace waits on the other half
    most diligently and well.

    Against the masonry of a platform, under the vaulted arch of the train-
    house, lay a long string of coaches. They were painted white on the
    bulging part, which led halfway down from the top, and the bodies were a
    deep bottle-green. There was a group of porters placing luggage in the
    van, and a great many others were busy with the affairs of passengers,
    tossing smaller bits of luggage into the racks over the seats, and
    bustling here and there on short quests. The guard of the train, a tall
    man who resembled one of the first Napoleon's veterans, was caring for
    the distribution of passengers into the various bins. There were no
    second-class compartments; they were all third and first-class.

    The train was at this time engineless, but presently a railway "flier,"
    painted a glowing vermilion, slid modestly down and took its place at
    the head. The guard walked along the platform, and decisively closed
    each door. He wore a dark blue uniform thoroughly decorated with silver
    braid in the guise of leaves. The way of him gave to this business the
    importance of a ceremony. Meanwhile the fireman had climbed down from
    the cab and raised his hand, ready to transfer a signal to the driver,
    who stood looking at his watch. In the interval there had something
    progressed in the large signal box that stands guard at Euston. This
    high house contains many levers, standing in thick, shining ranks. It
    perfectly resembles an organ in some great church, if it were not that
    these rows of numbered and indexed handles typify something more acutely
    human than does a keyboard. It requires four men to play this organ-like
    thing, and the strains never cease. Night and day, day and night, these
    four men are walking to and fro, from this lever to that lever, and
    under their hands the great machine raises its endless hymn of a world
    at work, the fall and rise of signals and the clicking swing of
    switches.

    And so as the vermilion engine stood waiting and looking from the shadow
    of the curve-roofed station, a man in the signal house had played the
    notes that informed the engine of its freedom. The driver saw the fall
    of those proper semaphores which gave him liberty to speak to his steel
    friend. A certain combination in the economy of the London and
    Northwestern Railway, a combination which had spread from the men who
    sweep out the carriages through innumerable minds to the general manager
    himself, had resulted in the law that the vermilion engine, with its
    long string of white and bottle-green coaches, was to start forthwith
    toward Scotland.

    Presently the fireman, standing with his face toward the rear, let fall
    his hand. "All right," he said. The driver turned a wheel, and as the
    fireman slipped back, the train moved along the platform at the pace of
    a mouse. To those in the tranquil carriages this starting was probably
    as easy as the sliding of one's hand over a greased surface, but in the
    engine there was more to it. The monster roared suddenly and loudly, and
    sprang forward impetuously. A wrong-headed or maddened draft-horse will
    plunge in its collar sometimes when going up a hill. But this load of
    burdened carriages followed imperturbably at the gait of turtles. They
    were not to be stirred from their way of dignified exit by the impatient
    engine. The crowd of porters and transient people stood respectful. They
    looked with the indefinite wonder of the railway-station sight-seer upon
    the faces at the windows of the passing coaches. This train was off for
    Scotland. It had started from the home of one accent to the home of
    another accent. It was going from manner to manner, from habit to habit,
    and in the minds of these London spectators there surely floated dim
    images of the traditional kilts, the burring speech, the grouse, the
    canniness, the oat-meal, all the elements of a romantic Scotland.

    The train swung impressively around the signal-house, and headed up a
    brick-walled cut. In starting this heavy string of coaches, the engine
    breathed explosively. It gasped, and heaved, and bellowed; once, for a
    moment, the wheels spun on the rails, and a convulsive tremor shook the
    great steel frame.

    The train itself, however, moved through this deep cut in the body of
    London with coolness and precision, and the employees of the railway,
    knowing the train's mission, tacitly presented arms at its passing. To
    the travelers in the carriages, the suburbs of London must have been one
    long monotony of carefully made walls of stone or brick. But after the
    hill was climbed, the train fled through pictures of red habitations of
    men on a green earth.

    But the noise in the cab did not greatly change its measure. Even though
    the speed was now high, the tremendous thumping to be heard in the cab
    was as alive with strained effort and as slow in beat as the breathing
    of a half-drowned man. At the side of the track, for instance, the sound
    doubtless would strike the ear in the familiar succession of incredibly
    rapid puffs; but in the cab itself, this land-racer breathes very like
    its friend, the marine engine. Everybody who has spent time on shipboard
    has forever in his head a reminiscence of the steady and methodical
    pounding of the engines, and perhaps it is curious that this relative
    which can whirl over the land at such a pace, breathes in the leisurely
    tones that a man heeds when he lies awake at night in his berth.

    There had been no fog in London, but here on the edge of the city a
    heavy wind was blowing, and the driver leaned aside and yelled that it
    was a very bad day for traveling on an engine. The engine-cabs of
    England, as of all Europe, are seldom made for the comfort of the men.
    One finds very often this apparent disregard for the man who does the
    work--this indifference to the man who occupies a position which for the
    exercise of temperance, of courage, of honesty, has no equal at the
    altitude of prime ministers. The American engineer is the gilded
    occupant of a salon in comparison with his brother in Europe. The man
    who was guiding this five-hundred-ton bolt, aimed by the officials of
    the railway at Scotland, could not have been as comfortable as a shrill
    gibbering boatman of the Orient. The narrow and bare bench at his side
    of the cab was not directly intended for his use, because it was so low
    that he would be prevented by it from looking out of the ship's port-
    hole which served him as a window. The fireman, on his side, had other
    difficulties. His legs would have had to straggle over some pipes at the
    only spot where there was a prospect, and the builders had also
    strategically placed a large steel bolt. Of course it is plain that the
    companies consistently believe that the men will do their work better if
    they are kept standing. The roof of the cab was not altogether a roof.
    It was merely a projection of two feet of metal from the bulkhead which
    formed the front of the cab. There were practically no sides to it, and
    the large cinders from the soft coal whirled around in sheets. From time
    to time the driver took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his
    blinking eyes.

    London was now well to the rear. The vermilion engine had been for some
    time flying like the wind. This train averages, between London and
    Carlisle forty-nine and nine-tenth miles an hour. It is a distance of
    299 miles. There is one stop. It occurs at Crewe, and endures five
    minutes. In consequence, the block signals flashed by seemingly at the
    end of the moment in which they were sighted.

    There can be no question of the statement that the road-beds of English
    railways are at present immeasurably superior to the American road-beds.
    Of course there is a clear reason. It is known to every traveler that
    peoples of the Continent of Europe have no right at all to own railways.
    Those lines of travel are too childish and trivial for expression. A
    correct fate would deprive the Continent of its railways, and give them
    to somebody who knew about them.

    The continental idea of a railway is to surround a mass of machinery
    with forty rings of ultra-military law, and then they believe they have
    one complete. The Americans and the English are the railway peoples.
    That our road-beds are poorer than the English road-beds is because of
    the fact that we were suddenly obliged to build thousands upon thousands
    of miles of railway, and the English were obliged to build slowly tens
    upon tens of miles. A road-bed from New York to San Francisco, with
    stations, bridges, and crossings of the kind that the London and
    Northwestern owns from London to Glasgow, would cost a sum large enough
    to support the German army for a term of years. The whole way is
    constructed with the care that inspired the creators of some of our now
    obsolete forts along the Atlantic coast.

    An American engineer, with his knowledge of the difficulties he had to
    encounter--the wide rivers with variable banks, the mountain chains,
    perhaps the long spaces of absolute desert; in fact, all the
    perplexities of a vast and somewhat new country--would not dare spend a
    respectable portion of his allowance on seventy feet of granite wall
    over a gully, when he knew he could make an embankment with little cost
    by heaving up the dirt and stones from here and there. But the English
    road is all made in the pattern by which the Romans built their
    highways. After England is dead, savants will find narrow streaks of
    masonry leading from ruin to ruin. Of course this does not always seem
    convincingly admirable. It sometimes resembles energy poured into a rat-
    hole. There is a vale between expediency and the convenience of
    posterity, a mid-ground which enables men surely to benefit the
    hereafter people by valiantly advancing the present; and the point is
    that, if some laborers live in unhealthy tenements in Cornwall, one is
    likely to view with incomplete satisfaction the record of long and
    patient labor and thought displayed by an eight-foot drain for a
    nonexistent, impossible rivulet in the North. This sentence does not
    sound strictly fair, but the meaning one wishes to convey is that if an
    English company spies in its dream the ghost of an ancient valley that
    later becomes a hill, it would construct for it a magnificent steel
    trestle, and consider that a duty had been performed in proper
    accordance with the company's conscience. But after all is said of it,
    the accidents and the miles of railway operated in England are not in
    proportion to the accidents and the miles of railway operated in the
    United States. The reason can be divided into three parts--older
    conditions, superior caution, the road-bed. And of these, the greatest
    is older conditions.

    In this flight toward Scotland one seldom encountered a grade crossing.
    In nine cases of ten there was either a bridge or a tunnel. The
    platforms of even the remote country stations were all of ponderous
    masonry in contrast to our constructions of planking. There was always
    to be seen, as we thundered toward a station of this kind, a number of
    porters in uniform, who requested the retreat of any one who had not the
    wit to give us plenty of room. And then, as the shrill warning of the
    whistle pierced even the uproar that was about us, came the wild joy of
    the rush past a station. It was something in the nature of a triumphal
    procession conducted at thrilling speed. Perhaps there was a curve of
    infinite grace, a sudden hollow explosive effect made by the passing of
    a signal-box that was close to the track, and then the deadly lunge to
    shave the edge of a long platform. There were always a number of people
    standing afar, with their eyes riveted upon this projectile, and to be
    on the engine was to feel their interest and admiration in the terror
    and grandeur of this sweep. A boy allowed to ride with the driver of the
    band-wagon as a circus parade winds through one of our village streets
    could not exceed for egotism the temper of a new man in the cab of a
    train like this one. This valkyric journey on the back of the vermilion
    engine, with the shouting of the wind, the deep, mighty panting of the
    steed, the gray blur at the track-side, the flowing quicksilver ribbon
    of the other rails, the sudden clash as a switch intersects, all the din
    and fury of this ride, was of a splendor that caused one to look abroad
    at the quiet, green landscape and believe that it was of a phlegm quiet
    beyond patience. It should have been dark, rain-shot, and windy; thunder
    should have rolled across its sky.

    It seemed, somehow, that if the driver should for a moment take his
    hands from his engine, it might swerve from the track as a horse from
    the road. Once, indeed, as he stood wiping his fingers on a bit of
    waste, there must have been something ludicrous in the way the solitary
    passenger regarded him. Without those finely firm hands on the bridle,
    the engine might rear and bolt for the pleasant farms lying in the
    sunshine at either side.

    This driver was worth contemplation. He was simply a quiet, middle-aged
    man, bearded, and with the little wrinkles of habitual geniality and
    kindliness spreading from the eyes toward the temple, who stood at his
    post always gazing out, through his round window, while, from time to
    time, his hands went from here to there over his levers. He seldom
    changed either attitude or expression. There surely is no engine-driver
    who does not feel the beauty of the business, but the emotion lies deep,
    and mainly inarticulate, as it does in the mind of a man who has
    experienced a good and beautiful wife for many years. This driver's face
    displayed nothing but the cool sanity of a man whose thought was buried
    intelligently in his business. If there was any fierce drama in it,
    there was no sign upon him. He was so lost in dreams of speed and
    signals and steam, that one speculated if the wonder of his tempestuous
    charge and its career over England touched him, this impassive rider of
    a fiery thing.

    It should be a well-known fact that, all over the world, the engine-
    driver is the finest type of man that is grown. He is the pick of the
    earth. He is altogether more worthy than the soldier, and better than
    the men who move on the sea in ships. He is not paid too much; nor do
    his glories weight his brow; but for outright performance, carried on
    constantly, coolly, and without elation, by a temperate, honest, clear-
    minded man, he is the further point. And so the lone human at his
    station in a cab, guarding money, lives, and the honor of the road, is a
    beautiful sight. The whole thing is aesthetic. The fireman presents the
    same charm, but in a less degree, in that he is bound to appear as an
    apprentice to the finished manhood of the driver. In his eyes, turned
    always in question and confidence toward his superior, one finds this
    quality; but his aspirations are so direct that one sees the same type
    in evolution.

    There may be a popular idea that the fireman's principal function is to
    hang his head out of the cab and sight interesting objects in the
    landscape. As a matter of fact, he is always at work. The dragon is
    insatiate. The fireman is continually swinging open the furnace-door,
    whereat a red shine flows out upon the floor of the cab, and shoveling
    in immense mouthfuls of coal to a fire that is almost diabolic in its
    madness. The feeding, feeding, feeding goes on until it appears as if it
    is the muscles of the fireman's arms that are speeding the long train.
    An engine running over sixty-five miles an hour, with 500 tons to drag,
    has an appetite in proportion to this task.

    View of the clear-shining English scenery is often interrupted between
    London and Crew by long and short tunnels. The first one was
    disconcerting. Suddenly one knew that the train was shooting toward a
    black mouth in the hills. It swiftly yawned wider, and then in a moment
    the engine dived into a place inhabitated by every demon of wind and
    noise. The speed had not been checked, and the uproar was so great that
    in effect one was simply standing at the center of a vast, black-walled
    sphere. The tubular construction which one's reason proclaimed had no
    meaning at all. It was a black sphere, alive with shrieks. But then on
    the surface of it there was to be seen a little needle-point of light,
    and this widened to a detail of unreal landscape. It was the world; the
    train was going to escape from this cauldron, this abyss of howling
    darkness. If a man looks through the brilliant water of a tropical pool,
    he can sometimes see coloring the marvels at the bottom the blue that
    was on the sky and the green that was on the foliage of this detail. And
    the picture shimmered in the heat-rays of a new and remarkable sun. It
    was when the train bolted out into the open air that one knew that it
    was his own earth.

    Once train met train in a tunnel. Upon the painting in the perfectly
    circular frame formed by the mouth there appeared a black square with
    sparks bursting from it. This square expanded until it hid everything,
    and a moment later came the crash of the passing. It was enough to make
    a man lose his sense of balance. It was a momentary inferno when the
    fireman opened the furnace door and was bathed in blood-red light as he
    fed the fires.

    The effect of a tunnel varied when there was a curve in it. One was
    merely whirling then heels over head, apparently in the dark, echoing
    bowels of the earth. There was no needle-point of light to which one's
    eyes clung as to a star.

    From London to Crew, the stern arm of the semaphore never made the train
    pause even for an instant. There was always a clear track. It was great
    to see, far in the distance, a goods train whooping smokily for the
    north of England on one of the four tracks. The overtaking of such a
    train was a thing of magnificent nothing for the long-strided engine,
    and as the flying express passed its weaker brother, one heard one or
    two feeble and immature puffs from the other engine, saw the fireman
    wave his hand to his luckier fellow, saw a string of foolish, clanking
    flat-cars, their freights covered with tarpaulins, and then the train
    was lost to the rear.

    The driver twisted his wheel and worked some levers, and the rhythmical
    chunking of the engine gradually ceased. Gliding at a speed that was
    still high, the train curved to the left, and swung down a sharp
    incline, to move with an imperial dignity through the railway yard at
    Rugby. There was a maze of switches, innumerable engines noisily pushing
    cars here and there, crowds of workmen who turned to look, a sinuous
    curve around the long train-shed, whose high wall resounded with the
    rumble of the passing express; and then, almost immediately, it seemed,
    came the open country again. Rugby had been a dream which one could
    properly doubt. At last the relaxed engine, with the same majesty of
    ease, swung into the high-roofed station at Crewe, and stopped on a
    platform lined with porters and citizens. There was instant bustle, and
    in the interest of the moment no one seemed particularly to notice the
    tired vermilion engine being led away.

    There is a five-minute stop at Crewe. A tandem of engines slip up, and
    buckled fast to the train for the journey to Carlisle. In the meantime,
    all the regulation items of peace and comfort had happened on the train
    itself. The dining-car was in the center of the train. It was divided
    into two parts, the one being a dining-room for first-class passengers,
    and the other a dining-room for the third-class passengers. They were
    separated by the kitchens and the larder. The engine, with all its
    rioting and roaring, had dragged to Crewe a car in which numbers of
    passengers were lunching in a tranquility that was almost domestic, on
    an average menu of a chop and potatoes, a salad, cheese, and a bottle of
    beer. Betimes they watched through the windows the great chimney-marked
    towns of northern England. They were waited upon by a young man of
    London, who was supported by a lad who resembled an American bell-boy.
    The rather elaborate menu and service of the Pullman dining-car is not
    known in England or on the Continent. Warmed roast beef is the exact
    symbol of a European dinner, when one is traveling on a railway.

    This express is named, both by the public and the company, the "Corridor
    Train," because a coach with a corridor is an unusual thing in England,
    and so the title has a distinctive meaning. Of course, in America, where
    there is no car which has not what we call an aisle, it would define
    nothing. The corridors are all at one side of the car. Doors open thence
    to little compartments made to seat four, or perhaps six, persons. The
    first-class carriages are very comfortable indeed, being heavily
    upholstered in dark, hard-wearing stuffs, with a bulging rest for the
    head. The third-class accommodations on this train are almost as
    comfortable as the first-class, and attract a kind of people that are
    not usually seen traveling third-class in Europe. Many people sacrifice
    their habit, in the matter of this train, to the fine conditions of the
    lower fare.

    One of the feats of the train is an electric button in each compartment.
    Commonly an electric button is placed high on the side of the carriage
    as an alarm signal, and it is unlawful to push it unless one is in
    serious need of assistance from the guard. But these bells also rang in
    the dining-car, and were supposed to open negotiations for tea or
    whatever. A new function has been projected on an ancient custom. No
    genius has yet appeared to separate these two meanings. Each bell rings
    an alarm and a bid for tea or whatever. It is perfect in theory then
    that, if one rings for tea, the guard comes to interrupt the murder, and
    that if one is being murdered, the attendant appears with tea. At any
    rate, the guard was forever being called from his reports and his
    comfortable seat in the forward end of the luggage-van by thrilling
    alarms. He often prowled the length of the train with hardihood and
    determination, merely to meet a request for a sandwich.

    The train entered Carlisle at the beginning of twilight. This is the
    border town, and an engine of the Caledonian Railway, manned by two men
    of broad speech, came to take the place of the tandem. The engine of
    these men of the North was much smaller than the others, but her cab was
    much larger, and would be a fair shelter on a stormy night. They had
    also built seats with hooks by which they hang them to the rail, and
    thus are still enabled to see through the round windows without
    dislocating their necks. All the human parts of the cab were covered
    with oilcloth. The wind that swirled from the dim twilight horizon made
    the warm glow from the furnace to be a grateful thing.

    As the train shot out of Carlisle, a glance backward could learn of the
    faint, yellow blocks of light from the carriages marked on the dimmed
    ground. The signals were now lamps, and shone palely against the sky.
    The express was entering night as if night were Scotland.

    There was a long toil to the summit of the hills, and then began the
    booming ride down the slope. There were many curves. Sometimes could be
    seen two or three signal lights at one time, twisting off in some new
    direction. Minus the lights and some yards of glistening rails, Scotland
    was only a blend of black and weird shapes. Forests which one could
    hardly imagine as weltering in the dewy placidity of evening sank to the
    rear as if the gods had bade them. The dark loom of a house quickly
    dissolved before the eyes. A station with its lamps became a broad
    yellow band that, to a deficient sense, was only a few yards in length.
    Below, in a deep valley, a silver glare on the waters of a river made
    equal time with the train. Signals appeared, grew, and vanished. In the
    wind and the mystery of the night, it was like sailing in an enchanted
    gloom. The vague profiles of hills ran like snakes across the somber
    sky. A strange shape boldly and formidably confronted the train, and
    then melted to a long dash of track as clean as sword-blades.

    The vicinity of Glasgow is unmistakable. The flames of pauseless
    industries are here and there marked on the distance. Vast factories
    stand close to the track, and reaching chimneys emit roseate flames. At
    last one may see upon a wall the strong reflection from furnaces, and
    against it the impish and inky figures of workingmen. A long, prison-
    like row of tenements, not at all resembling London, but in one way
    resembling New York, appeared to the left, and then sank out of sight
    like a phantom.

    At last the driver stopped the brave effort of his engine The 400 miles
    were come to the edge. The average speed of forty-nine and one-third
    miles each hour had been made, and it remained only to glide with the
    hauteur of a great express through the yard and into the station at
    Glasgow.

    A wide and splendid collection of signal lamps flowed toward the engine.
    With delicacy and care the train clanked over some switches, passes the
    signals, and then there shone a great blaze of arc-lamps, defining the
    wide sweep of the station roof. Smoothly, proudly, with all that vast
    dignity which had surrounded its exit from London, the express moved
    along its platform. It was the entrance into a gorgeous drawing-room of
    a man that was sure of everything.

    The porters and the people crowded forward. In their minds there may
    have floated dim images of the traditional music-halls, the bobbies, the
    'buses, the 'Arrys and 'Arriets, the swells of London.
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