Cradock Nowell: A Tale of the New Forest. Volume 2 of 3
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“Oh no. I have no friends whatever; none, I mean, in London, only one family, far in the country, to care at all about me.”
“No father or mother to make a fuss, eh? No wife to prevent your attending to business?”
“No, sir, nothing of the sort. I am quite alone in the world; and my life is of no importance.”
“Wonderful luck,” muttered Mr. Killquick; “exactly the very thing for us! And I have been so put out about that place, it has got such a reputation. Poor Morshead cannot get through the work any longer by himself. And the coroner made such nasty remarks. If we kill another man there before Easter, the Times will be sure to get hold of it. Young man,” he continued in a louder tone, “you are in luck this time, I believe. It is a very snug situation; only you must look sharp after your legs, and be sure you never touch spirits. Not given to blue ruin, I hope?”
“Oh no. I never touch it.”
“That?s right. I was afraid you did, you look so down in the mouth. You can give us a reference, I suppose?”
“Yes, to my landlady, Mrs. Ducksacre, a most respectable person, in trade in Mortimer–street.”
“Good,” replied Mr. Killquick; “you mustn?t be alarmed, by the way, by any foolish rumours you may hear as to dangers purely imaginary. Your predecessor lost his life through the very grossest carelessness. You are as safe there as in your bed, unless your nerves happen to fail you. And, when that is the case, I should like to know,” asked the traffic–manager indignantly, “which of us is not in danger, even in coming down–stairs?”
“What will my duties be, then?” asked Cradock, with some surprise.
“Why, you are not afraid, are you?” Mr. Killquick looked at him contemptuously.
“No, I should rather hope not,” replied Cradock, meeting him eye to eye, so that the wholesale smasher quailed at him; “there is no duty, even in a powder–mill, which I would shrink from now.”
“Ah, terrible things, those powder–mills! A perfect disgrace to this age and country, their wanton waste of human life. How the Legislature lets them go on so, is more than I can conceive. Why, they think no more of murdering and maiming a dozen people – ”
“Please, sir,” cried one of the clerks, coming down from the telegraph office, “no end of a collision on the Slayham and Bury Branch. Three passengers killed, and twenty–five wounded, some of them exceedingly fatally.”
“Bless my heart if I didn?t expect it. Told Sykes it would be so. How?s the engine, Jemmy?”
“She?s all right, sir; jumped over three carriages, and went a header into a sand–hill. Driver cased in glass, from vitrifaction of the sand. Stoker took the hot water – a thing he ain?t much accustomed to.”
“No! What a capital joke. Hell–fire–Jack (I can swear it was him), preserved in a glass case, from the results of his own imprudence! I shall be up with you in five minutes, James. Be quite ready to begin.”
“Now,” said Mr. Killquick, drawing out his cigar–case, “I have little more to say to you, young man, except that you can begin at eight o?clock to–morrow morning.We will dispense with the references, for I have the utmost confidence in you, and you will be searched very carefully every time you come out of the gate – which you never will be allowed to do, except when your spell is over, and your mate is in. You will go at once to our outfitters, and, upon presenting this ticket, they will fit you up, as tightly as possible, with your regimentals. And see that you don?t take boots, but the very best shoes for jumping in. What they call ‘Oxford shoes’ are best, when tied tight over the instep, and not too thick in the sole. No nails, mind, for fear of slipping upon the flange. Good–bye, my boy; be very careful. By–the–by, you say you don?t value your life?”
“Very little indeed,” said Cradock, “except just for one reason.”
“Then now you must add another reason; you must value it for our sake. The Company can?t have another inquest for at least six months. I mean, of course, by the same coroner. Confound that fellow; he will not take a right view of things. At eight o?clock to–morrow morning, you will be at the gate of the Cramjam goods station. The clerk there will have his orders about you. He will supply you with a book, and map out for you your duties. Also Morshead, your mate, an invaluable man, will show you the practical part of it. Now, good–bye, my lad. Remember, you never wear any except your official dress. We allow you two suits in the twelvemonth. Your duties will be of a refined character, and the exercise exhilarating. I trust to receive a good report of you; and I hope, my boy, that you are at peace, both with God and man.”
Even Mr. Killquick had been touched a little by Cradock?s air of uncomplaining sorrow, and the stamp of high mind and good breeding.
“Very foolish of me,” he muttered, as he lit his cigar, and went up to telegraph to the Slayham station–master – ?Commit yourself to nothing; observe the strictest economy; and no bonfires of the splinter–wood, as they had last week? – “very foolish of me,” he said on the stairs, “but it goes to my heart to kill that young fellow. How I should like to know his history! That face does not mean nothing.”
Cradock, caring very little what his duties might be, and feeling the night–wind go through his heart, hastened to the outfitters?, and there he was received with a grin by an experienced shopman, on the production of his note.
“Capital customers, sir,” he said; “famous customers of ours, that Grand Junction Wasting and Screwing Line, and the best of all for the gentlemen in your way of business, sir. Must have new clothes every new hand, and they changes pretty often, sir. Pervides all the comforts of a home for you, and a gentlemanly competence, before you?ve been half a year with them.”
The man grinned still more at his own grim wit, while Cradock stared at him in wonderment.
“Don?t you see, sir, they can?t pass the clothes on, after the man has been killed, even if there?s a bit of them left; for they must fit you like your skin, sir. The leastest little wrinkle, sir, or the ruffle of a hinch, or so much as the fray of a hem, and there you are, sir; and they have to look for another hactive young man, sir. And hactive young men are getting shy, sir, uncommon shy of it now, except they come from the country. Hope you insured your life, sir, before taking the situation. There?s no company will accept your life now, sir. What a nice young man the last were, – what a nice young man, to be sure! outrageous fond of filberts; till they cracked him, and found a shell for him.”
“Well,” said Cradock, whom the busy tailor had been measuring all this while, “from all that you tell me, there would be less imprudence in ordering my coffin than to–morrow?s dinner. What is there so very dangerous in it?”
“Well, you?ll see, sir, you?ll see. I would not frighten you for the world, because it?s all up in a moment, if you lose your presence of mind. Thank you, sir; all right now, except the legs of the tights, and that?s the most particular part of it all. May I trouble you to turn your trousers up? It will never do to measure over them. We shall put six hands on at once at the job. The whole will be ready at eleven this evening. You must kindly call and try everything. We are ordered to insist upon that.”
The next morning, Crad, in a suit of peculiar, tough, and yet most elastic cord, which fitted him as if he had been dipped in it, walked in at the open gates of the front yard, leading to the Cramjam general goods terminus. This was the only way in or out (except along “the metals”), and, as it was got up with heaps of stucco, all the porters were very proud of it, and called it a “slap–up harchway.”
“Stop, stop,” cried a sharp little fellow, gurgling up, like a fountain, from among the sham pilasters; “what?s your business here, my man, on the premises of the Grand Junction Wasting and Screwing Company? Ah, I see by your togs. Just come this way, if you please, then.”
Here let me call a little halt, for time enough to explain that the more fashionable of the railway companies have lately agreed that a station–yard is a sort of royal park, which cannot be kept too private, which no doors may rashly open upon, a pleasant rural solitude and weed–nursery for the neighbourhood, and wherein the senior porter has his private mushroom–bed. They are wise in this seclusion, and wholesome is their privacy, so long as they discard all principle – so long as they are allowed to garotte us, while they jabber about “public interests.” Perhaps, ere very long, we shall have a modern D?dalus; and then the boards of directors, so ready to do collectively things which, done individually, no gentleman would own to, may abate a few jots of their arrogance, and have faint recollections of honour.
Cradock, not very deeply impressed by the “compo” arch (about half the size of the stone one at Nowelhurst Hall?s chief entrance), presented himself to the sharp little fellow, and told him what he was come for.
“Glad to hear it,” said the gateman, “uncommonly glad to hear it. Morshead is a wonderful fellow; there is not another man in England could have stuck to that work as he has done. He ought to have five pounds a week, that he ought, instead of a single sovereign. Screwing Co.” (this was their common name) “will be sorry when they have lost him. Now your duty is to enter, in this here book, the number of every truck, jerry, trod, or blinkem, tarpaulin, or covering of any sort; also the destination chalked on it, and the nature of the goods in the truck, so far as you can ascertain them; coals, iron, chalk, packing–cases, boxes, crates, what not, so fast as they comes into the higher end, or so fast as they goes out of it. You return this book to the check office every time you come off duty. You begin work at eight in the morning, and you leave at eight in the evening. You don?t pass here meanwhile, and you can?t pass up the line. Hope you have brought some grub. You?ll have five minutes in the afternoon, long enough to get a snack in, after the up goods for Millstone is off. Oh, you ought to have brought some grub; if you faint, you will never come to again. But perhaps Morshead can spare you a bit. He?ll be glad to see you, that?s certain, for he ain?t slept a wink for a week. And such a considerate chap. I enter you in and out. ‘Number–taker 26.’ That?s all right from your cap, my lad. No room for it on your sleeve. Might stick out, you know, and you must pack tighter than any of the goods is. ‘Undertakers,’ we call you always. Good–bye, sir; Morshead will tell you the rest, and I hope to see you all right at eight P.M. The first day is always the worst. Go in at that door by the Pickford, and ask the first porter you see for Morshead, and take care how you get at him.”
Morshead was resting for a moment upon a narrow piece of planking, amid a regular Seven Dials of sidings, points, and turn–tables. Cradock could scarcely see him, for trucks and vans and boxes on wheels were gliding past in every direction, thick as the carts on London Bridge, creaking, groaning, ricketing, lurching; thumping up against one another, and then recoiling with a heavy kick, straining upon coupling–chains, butting against bulkheads, staggering and jerking into grooves and out of them, crushing flints into a shower of sparks, doing anything and everything except standing still for a moment. And among them rushed about, like dragons – ramping, and routing, and swearing fearfully, gargling their throats with a boiling riot, and then goring the ground with tusks of steam, whisking and flicking their tails, and themselves, in and out at the countless cross–webs, screaming, and leaping, and rattling, and booming – the great ponderous giant goods–engines. Every man was out–swearing his neighbour, every truck browbeating its fellow, every engine out–yelling its rival. There is nothing on earth to compare with this scene, unless it be the jostling and churning of ice–packs in Davis?s Straits, when the tide runs hard, and a gale of wind is blowing, and the floes have broken up suddenly. And even that comparison fails, because, though the monsters grind and crash, and labour and leap with agony, they do not roar, and vomit steam, and swear at one another.
At the risk of his life, for as yet he knew nothing of the laws that governed their movements – a very imperfect code, by–the–by – Cradock made his way to the narrow staging where Morshead was taking a breathing–time. His fellow “number–taker” of course descried him coming; for he had acquired the art of seeing all round, as a spider is falsely supposed to do. He knew, in a moment, by Cradock?s dress, what business he was meant for; and he said to himself, “Thank God!” in one breath, for the sake of his wife and family; and “Oh, poor fellow!” in the next, as he saw how green our Cradock was. Then he held up his hands for Cradock to stop and waved them for him to run; and so piloted him to the narrow knife–board, “where a man?s life was his own a?most.”
The highest and noblest of physical courage is that which, fully perceiving the danger, looking into the black pit of death, and seeing the night of horrors there (undivested of horror by true religion), encounters them all, treads the narrow cord daily, not for the sake of honour or fortune; not because of the dash in it, and the excitement to a brave soul; not even to win the heart?s maiden, that pearl of romance and mystery: but simply to supply the home, to keep in flow the springs of love – whence the geyser heat is gone – to sustain and comfort (without being comforted by them) the wife, whose beauty is passed away, and who may have taken to scold, and the children, whose chief idea of daddy is that he has got a halfpenny.
This glorious inglorious courage, grander than any that ever won medal or cross for destroying, had a little home – though he knew it not, and never thought about it – in the broad, well–rounded bosom of simple Stephen Morshead. None but himself knew his narrow escapes; an inch the wrong way and he was a dead man, fifty times a day. And worst of all in the night – oh, in the horrible night, and yet more in the first gleam of morning, when the body was worn out, and dreams came over the eyes, but were death if they passed to the brain, and the trucks went by like nightmares – that very morning he had felt, after taking duty night and day for more than a week, since they killed his partner, he had felt that his Sally must be a widow, and his seven children orphans, if another night went over him without some relief of sleep. That every word of this is true, many a poor man would avouch (if he only had time and the money to read it, and were not afraid); but few rich men will care to swallow facts so indigestible.
Stephen Morshead was astonished at seeing that his mate was come. None of the men in the goods station would have anything to do with it. It was very well to be up in the trucks, or upon the engines, or even to act as switchman, for you had a corner inviolable, and could only do mischief to others. But to run in and out, and through and through, in that perpetual motion, to be bound to jot down every truck, the cover, and contents of it, entering or departing from that crammed and crowded terminus, to have nobody to help you therein, and nobody to cry “dead man” if you died, and the certainty that if you stood a hair?s–breadth out of the perpendicular, or a single wheel had a bunion, you with the note–book in your hand must flood the narrow ‘tween–ways, and find your way out underneath to heaven; all this, and the risk of the fearful jumps from one sliding train to another, sliding oppositely, and jerking, perhaps, as you jumped; and yet if you funked the jump you must be crushed, like a frog beneath a turf–beater: these considerations, after many pipes were smoked over them, had induced all the porters and stokers to dwell on the virtues of the many men killed, and to yield to their wives’ entreaties, acquiesce in their sixteen shillings, nor aspire to the four shillings Charon–fare.
“Now,” said Morshead, “shake hands with me,” as Cradock, breathless with running wonder, leaped upon the nine–inch gangway. “I see you belongs to a different horder of society; obliged to keep my eyes open, mate; but, as long as you and I works together, I ask it as a favour of you, to shake hands night and morning.”
“With the greatest pleasure,” said Cradock, “if you think there?s room for our funny–bones.”
“Ha, ha!” laughed Morshead, “you are the right sort for it. Not a bit afeard, I see. Now I mustn?t stop to talk; just follow me, and do as I do. I can put you up to it in six hours; and then if you can spare me for the other six, ‘twill be the saving of the little ones. But tell the truth if you?re tired. I should scorn myself if harm came to you.”
“You are the bravest man I ever met,” said Cradock, with his heart rising; “you cannot expect me to be like you. But you shall not find me a coward.”
“I can see it by your eyes, lad. No sparkle, but a glowing like. I can always tell by the eyes of a man how long he will last at this work. Now come along o’ me, and I?ll show you the nine worst crushing places.”
Cradock followed him through the threads – threads of Clotho and Atropos – feeling the way with his legs, like a gnat who “overs the posts” of a spider?s web. In and out, with a jump here and there, when two side–boards threatened to shear them, they got to the gorge at the entrance, where the main turmoil of all was. The Symplegades were a joke to it. And all because the Screwing Company would not buy land enough to get elbow room. There are several lines of railway which do a much larger business; there is no other which attempts to do so much upon less than four times the acreage.
“I?ve tottled all them as are going out,” Mr. Morshead informed Cradock; “now you?ll see how we enters them as they enters.”
Laughing at his own very miserable joke, he leaped on the chains of the passing waggons, and held up his hand for Cradock not to attempt to do the same.
“Takes a deal of practice that,” he cried, after he had crossed the train; “it ain?t like a passenger–train, you know; and you must larn when they are standing. I need not to have done it now, but sometimes I be forced. Bide where you are; no danger unless they comes with the flaps down.”
Then he jotted down, with surprising quickness, all the necessary particulars of the train that was coming in. It happened to be an easy one; for there were no tarpaulins at all, and it was not travelling faster than about four miles an hour.
“Some drivers there is,” said Morshead, as he rejoined Cradock round the tail of the train, “who really seem to want to kill a fellow, they come by at such a pace, without having any call for it. I believe they think, the low fools, that we are put as spies upon them, and they would rather kill us than not. – Hold your tongue,” to a man in a truck, who was interrupting his lecture; “don?t you know better than to offer me that stuff? Never touch what they offers you, sir. They means no harm, but you had safer take poison when you be on duty. There is not much real danger just here, if a fellow is careful, because the rails run parallo; there is nothing round the curve now, I see, and only two coming out, and both of they be scored; it?s a rare chance to show you the figures of eight, and slide–points where the chief danger is. Show you where poor Charley was killed last week, and how he did it.”
“Poor fellow! Did he leave any family?”
“Twelve in all. No man comes here, unless he be tired of his life, or be druv to it by the little ones.”
“And what did the Company do for them?”
“Oh, behaved most ‘andsome for them. Allowed ‘em two bob a week for a twelvemonth to come – twopence apiece all round. But they only did it to encourage me, for fear I should funk off. I have seen out three mates now. Please God, I shan?t see you out too, my lad.”
“If you do, it shan?t be from funk, Morshead. I rather like the danger.”
“That?s the worst thing of all,” replied Stephen; “I beg of you not to say that, sir.”
A thoroughly brave man almost always has respect for order. The bold man – which means a coward with jumps in him – generally has none. It was strange to see how Stephen Morshead, in all that crush, and crash, and rattle, that swinging and creaking as of the Hellespontic boat–bridge, mixed deference with his pity for Cradock. He saw, from his face, and air, and manner, that he was bred a gentleman. Shall we ever come – or rather the twentieth generation come – to the time when every man of England (but for his own fault) shall be bred and trained a gentleman in the true and glorious sense of it?
Cradock saw the fatal places, where the sleepers still were purple, where danger ran in converging lines, where a man must stand sideways, like a duellist, and with his arms in like a drill–sergeant?s, and not shrink an inch from the driving–wheels; where his size was measured as for his coffin, and if he stirred he would want nothing more. Then, if a single truck–flap were down, if an engine rollicked upon the rail, if a broad north–country truck, overreaching, happened to be in either train, when you were caught between the two, your only chance was to cry, “Good God!” and lie upon your side, and straighten all your toes out.
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