Drift from Two Shores

A Sleeping-Car Experience

Bret Harte

IT WAS in a Pullman sleeping-car on a Western road. After that first plunge into unconsciousness which the weary traveler takes on getting into his berth, I awakened to the dreadful revelation that I had been asleep only two hours. The greater part of a long winter night was before me to face with staring eyes.

Finding it impossible to sleep, I lay there wondering a number of things: why, for instance, the Pullman sleeping-car blankets were unlike other blankets; why they were like squares cut out of cold buckwheat cakes, and why they clung to you when you turned over, and lay heavy on you without warmth; why the curtains before you could not have been made opaque, without being so thick and suffocating; why it would not be as well to sit up all night half asleep in an ordinary passenger-car as to lie awake all night in a Pullman. But the snoring of my fellow-passengers answered this question in the negative.

With the recollection of last night’s dinner weighing on me as heavily and coldly as the blankets, I began wondering why, over the whole extent of the continent, there was no local dish; why the bill of fare at restaurant and hotel was invariably only a weak reflex of the metropolitan hostelries; why the entrées were always the same, only more or less badly cooked; why the traveling American always was supposed to demand turkey and cold cranberry sauce; why the pretty waiter-girl apparently shuffled your plates behind your back, and then dealt them over your shoulder in a semicircle, as if they were a hand at cards, and not always a good one? Why, having done this, she instantly retired to the nearest wall, and gazed at you scornfully, as one who would say, “Fair sir, though lowly, I am proud; if thou dost imagine that I would permit undue familiarity of speech, beware!” And then I began to think of and dread the coming breakfast; to wonder why the ham was always cut half an inch thick, and why the fried egg always resembled a glass eye that visibly winked at you with diabolical dyspeptic suggestions; to wonder if the buckwheat cakes, the eating of which requires a certain degree of artistic preparation and deliberation, would be brought in as usual one minute before the train started. And then I had a vivid recollection of a fellow-passenger who, at a certain breakfast station in Illinois, frantically enwrapped his portion of this national pastry in his red bandana handkerchief, took it into the smoking-car, and quietly devoured it en route.

Lying broad awake, I could not help making some observations which I think are not noticed by the day traveler. First, that the speed of a train is not equal or continuous. That at certain times the engine apparently starts up, and says to the baggage train behind it, “Come, come, this won’t do! Why, it’s nearly half-past two; how in h-ll shall we get through? Don’t you talk to me. Pooh, pooh!” delivered in that rhythmical fashion which all meditation assumes on a railway train. Exempli gratia: One night, having raised my window-curtain to look over a moonlit snowy landscape, as I pulled it down the lines of a popular comic song flashed across me. Fatal error! The train instantly took it up, and during the rest of the night I was haunted by this awful refrain: “Pull down the bel-lind, pull down the bel-lind; simebody’s klink klink, O don’t be shoo-shoo!” Naturally this differs on the different railways. On the New York Central, where the road-bed is quite perfect and the steel rails continuous, I have heard this irreverent train give the words of a certain popular revival hymn after this fashion: “Hold the fort, for I am Sankey; Moody slingers still. Wave the swish swash back from klinky, klinky klanky kill.” On the New York and New Haven, where there are many switches, and the engine whistles at every cross road, I have often heard, “Tommy make room for your whooopy! that’s a little clang; bumpity, bumpity, boopy, clikitty, clikitty, clang.” Poetry, I fear, fared little better. One starlit night, coming from Quebec, as we slipped by a virgin forest, the opening lines of Evangeline flashed upon me. But all I could make of them was this: “This is the forest primeval-eval; the groves of the pines and the hemlocks-locks-locks-locks-loooock!” The train was only “slowing” or “braking” up at a station. Hence the jar in the metre.

I had noticed a peculiar Æolian harp-like cry that ran through the whole train as we settled to rest at last after a long run—an almost sigh of infinite relief, a musical sigh that began in C and ran gradually up to F natural, which I think most observant travelers have noticed day and night. No railway official has ever given me a satisfactory explanation of it. As the car, in a rapid run, is always slightly projected forward of its trucks, a practical friend once suggested to me that it was the gradual settling back of the car body to a state of inertia, which, of course, every poetical traveler would reject. Four o’clock the sound of boot-blacking by the porter faintly apparent from the toilet-room. Why not talk to him? But, fortunately, I remembered that any attempt at extended conversation with conductor or porter was always resented by them as implied disloyalty to the company they represented. I recalled that once I had endeavored to impress upon a conductor the absolute folly of a midnight inspection of tickets, and had been treated by him as an escaped lunatic. No, there was no relief from this suffocating and insupportable loneliness to be gained then. I raised the window-blind and looked out. We were passing a farm-house. A light, evidently the lantern of a farm-hand, was swung beside a barn. Yes, the faintest tinge of rose in the far horizon. Morning, surely, at last.

We had stopped at a station. Two men had got into the car, and had taken seats in the one vacant section, yawning occasionally and conversing in a languid, perfunctory sort of way. They sat opposite each other, occasionally looking out of the window, but always giving the strong impression that they were tired of each other’s company. As I looked out of my curtains at them, the One Man said, with a feebly concealed yawn:—

“Yes, well, I reckon he was at one time as poplar an ondertaker ez I knew.”

The Other Man (inventing a question rather than giving an answer, out of some languid, social impulse): “But was he—this yer ondertaker—a Christian—hed he jined the church?”

The One Man (reflectively): “Well, I don’t know ez you might call him a purfessin’ Christian; but he hed—yes, he hed conviction. I think Dr. Wylie hed him under conviction. Et least that was the way I got it from him.”

A long, dreary pause. The Other Man (feeling it was incumbent upon him to say something): “But why was he poplar ez an ondertaker?”

The One Man (lazily): “Well, he was kinder poplar with widders and widderers—sorter soothen ’em a kinder, keerless way; slung ’em suthin’ here and there, sometimes outer the Book, sometimes outer hisself, ez a man of experience as hed hed sorror. Hed, they say (very cautiously), lost three wives hisself, and five children by this yer new disease—dipthery—out in Wisconsin. I don’t know the facts, but that’s what’s got round.”

The Other Man: “But how did he lose his poplarity?”

The One Man: “Well, that’s the question. You see he interduced some things into ondertaking that waz new. He hed, for instance, a way, as he called it, of manniperlating the features of the deceased.”

The Other Man (quietly): “How manniperlating?”

The One Man (struck with a bright and aggressive thought): “Look yer, did ye ever notiss how, generally speakin’, onhandsome a corpse is?”

The Other Man had noticed this fact.

The One Man (returning to his fact): “Why there was Mary Peebles, ez was daughter of my wife’s bosom friend—a mighty pooty girl and a professing Christian—died of scarlet fever. Well, that gal—I was one of the mourners, being my wife’s friend—well, that gal, though I hedn’t, perhaps, oughter say—lying in that casket, fetched all the way from some A1 establishment in Chicago, filled with flowers and furbelows—didn’t really seem to be of much account. Well, although my wife’s friend, and me a mourner—well, now, I was—disappointed and discouraged.”

The Other Man (in palpably affected sympathy): “Sho! now!”

“Yes, sir! Well, you see, this yer ondertaker, this Wilkins, hed a way of correctin’ all thet. And just by manniperlation. He worked over the face of the deceased ontil he perduced what the survivin’ relatives called a look of resignation,—you know, a sort of smile, like. When he wanted to put in any extrys, he perduced what he called—hevin’ reglar charges for this kind of work—a Christian’s hope.”

The Other Man: “I want to know.”

“Yes. Well, I admit, at times it was a little startlin’. And I’ve allers said (a little confidentially) that I had my doubts of its being Scriptoorl, or sacred, we being, ez you know, worms of the yearth; and I relieved my mind to our pastor, but he didn’t feel like interferin’, ez long ez it was confined to church membership. But the other day, when Cy Dunham died—you disremember Cy Dunham?”

A long interval of silence. The Other Man was looking out of the window, and had apparently forgotten his companion completely. But as I stretched my head out of the curtain I saw four other heads as eagerly reached out from other berths to hear the conclusion of the story. One head, a female one, instantly disappeared on my looking around, but a certain tremulousness of her window-curtain showed an unabated interest. The only two utterly disinterested men were the One Man and the Other Man.

The Other Man (detaching himself languidly from the window): “Cy Dunham?”

“Yes; Cy never hed hed either convictions or purfessions. Uster get drunk and go round with permiscous women. Sorter like the prodigal son, only a little more so, ez fur ez I kin judge from the facks ez stated to me. Well, Cy one day petered out down at Little Rock, and was sent up yer for interment. The fammerly, being proud-like, of course didn’t spare no money on that funeral, and it waz—now between you and me—about ez shapely and first-class and prime-mess affair ez I ever saw. Wilkins hed put in his extrys. He hed put onto that prodigal’s face the A1 touch,—hed him fixed up with a ‘Christian’s hope.’ Well, it was about the turning-point, for thar waz some of the members and the pastor hisself thought that the line oughter to be drawn somewhere, and thar was some talk at Deacon Tibbet’s about a reg’lar conference meetin’ regardin’ it. But it wasn’t thet which made him onpoplar.”

Another silence; no expression nor reflection from the face of the Other Man of the least desire to know what ultimately settled the unpopularity of the undertaker. But from the curtains of the various berths several eager and one or two even wrathful faces, anxious for the result.

The Other Man (lazily recurring to the fading topic): “Well, what made him onpoplar?”

The One Man (quietly): “Extrys, I think—that is, I suppose, not knowin’” (cautiously) “all the facts. When Mrs. Widdecombe lost her husband, ’bout two months ago, though she’d been through the valley of the shadder of death twice—this bein’ her third marriage, hevin’ been John Barker’s widder—”

The Other Man (with an intense expression of interest): “No, you’re foolin’ me!”

The One Man (solemnly): “Ef I was to appear before my Maker to-morrow, yes! she was the widder of Barker.”

The Other Man: “Well, I swow.”

The One Man: “Well, this Widder Widdecombe, she put up a big funeral for the deceased. She hed Wilkins, and thet ondertaker just laid hisself out. Just spread hisself. Onfort’natly,—perhaps fort’natly in the ways of Providence,—one of Widdecombe’s old friends, a doctor up thar in Chicago, comes down to the funeral. He goes up with the friends to look at the deceased, smilin’ a peaceful sort o’ heavinly smile, and everybody sayin’ he’s gone to meet his reward, and this yer friend turns round, short and sudden on the widder settin’ in her pew, and kinder enjoyin, as wimen will, all the compliments paid the corpse, and he says, says he:—

“‘What did you say your husband died of, marm?’

“‘Consumption,’ she says, wiping her eyes, poor critter. ‘Consumption—gallopin’ consumption.’

“‘Consumption be d—d,’ sez he, bein’ a profane kind of Chicago doctor, and not bein’ ever under conviction. ‘Thet man died of strychnine. Look at thet face. Look at thet contortion of them fashal muscles. Thet’s strychnine. Thet’s risers Sardonikus’ (thet’s what he said; he was always sorter profane).

“‘Why, doctor,’ says the widder, ‘thet—thet is his last smile. It’s a Christian’s resignation.’

“‘Thet be blowed; don’t tell me,’ sez he. ‘Hell is full of thet kind of resignation. It’s pizon. And I’ll—’ Why, dern my skin, yes we are; yes, it’s Joliet. Wall, now, who’d hey thought we’d been nigh onto an hour.”

Two or three anxious passengers from their berths: “Say; look yer, stranger! Old man! What became of—”

But the One Man and the Other Man had vanished.

Drift from Two Shores - Contents    |     Morning on the Avenue

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback