Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Experiences of a Backwoods Preacher
Chapter XVI. Life on the Rail

IT is not the fence-rail, nor the bed-rail, nor the stair-rail that is the subject of this chapter, but I speak of a longer and stronger rail than any of these. It is the iron or steel rail on which the steam-horse draws his ponderous load. That load is sometimes dead and sometimes living freight. It is of the latter kind that I have a few thoughts to offer.

Dr. Thomas Dick said, some sixty years ago, “that the time would come when the inhabitants of a village could be carried over the hills and valleys at the rate of twenty miles an hour. But people called him daft; yet he was right after all, only his figures were far too low.

Shortly after the trains began to run on the Great Western Railway, a neighbour of mine, Jacob Kerr, of Caistor, went to Hamilton, and for the first time in his life saw a train in motion. When I asked him what it looked like, he said: “I can compare it to nothing that I have seen; but if you can imagine all the houses on one side of a village street to be chasing each other, about as fast as a horse can run, you will get an idea of what a train in motion is like.”

Now every one is familiar with the sight of moving trains; even the cattle and horses in the fields have become so accustomed to the rattle of the cars and the screaming of the engines that they pay but little attention to them. In fact, their familiarity has brought contempt that has cost the life of many a farmer’s horse or cow. Dr. Dick’s prediction has become an everyday fact. There is not a day that passes, except the Sabbath, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, that there are not people enough living in the cars to fill a large city. This is what I meant by “life on the rail.”

I know of no situation in which a student of human nature has a better chance to gain an insight into the great variety there is in people’s proclivities than is afforded in a railway train filled with passengers. There everybody is away from home, and yet everybody is trying to feel perfectly at home. There conventionalities are laid aside, and people indulge in a freedom of social intercourse that would not be tolerated in other places. The car is the greatest leveller that we find in modern society, unless it be a town or village fire. That brings people together in a way that is sometimes laughable.

In a town where I once lived one day about ten o’clock in the morning the fire-bell sent its warning peals ringing through the place until every home was visited by its echoes. The fire was in a large building on the principal street. In a few minutes hundreds of people were there—men, women and children. One man came running out of his shop and another from his store. One woman, who was putting clothes on the line, ran to the fire with a clothes-pin in her hand. Another woman was dusting the parlour when the bell rang, and she carried her broom with her. One came with a dish-cloth in her hand, and another, who was cutting meat for dinner, carried a large butcher knife with her to the fire. After the burn was over there was a good deal of merriment among the women about the hurried manner in which they had left their homes. At length the conclusion was reached that a fire was a good thing to bring people together, and let them see what their neighbours are doing. But after this digression I must return to “life on the rail.”

The first subject of our studying of character shall be the officials called the conductors. These men are very important factors in making up the aggregate of a travelling company; and they present so many different types of manhood that it is not easy to believe them all to belong to the same fraternity, and were it not for their dress and duties, we should take them for entirely opposite classes of persons. One is all kindness and good-nature; ready to give assistance in every way in his power. The smallest child is treated with as much courtesy as the strongest man; and the oldest and plainest lady receives as much consideration as the prettiest and sprightliest woman on the train, at the hands of this gentlemanly official. This man has everybody for his friend, and travellers like to go on his train, and will do so when they can. Then there is another conductor who is the very reverse of this. He feels his importance, and he makes other people feel it too. His face is never very pleasant to look at, but it can get up a scowl at a minute’s notice if some luckless passenger happens to say or do anything that is not provided for in the rules of service. He is the one that every man hopes will be on some other train than the one he is going on. A third conductor comes in between these two, and has some of the habits of both. When he is in good humour, he is all that is nice; he is then as sweet as honey, and pliable as the down on the chin of green sixteen. But when he is a little out of tune, he is as snarly and crabbed as a Scotch terrier with a chestnut burr in his ear. This is the man of whom people will say, as they go into the car: “Well, I do hope the conductor is in sunshine to-day.” There are other varieties and modifications, but these are the leading samples that have come under my notice during the years that I have more or less studied “life on the rail.”

Our next subject for contemplation will be found among the passengers, and here an almost endless variety presents itself to our view. All kinds of people in all sorts of dress, and representing every class of society, are here thrown into each other’s company without any regard to social standing or political and religious differences. Here wealth and poverty meet on the same level. Innocence and guilt are in the same range. Modesty and impudence are face to face. Pollution and purity look through the same window. Pride and humility sit in the same seat. And age and childhood drink out of the same cup.

But let us take a little while to study individual cases. See that young man just coming into the car. The one with a small satchel in one hand, and a little cane in the other. See his nice little moustache, and how tightly his clothes fit him, and his hair is parted in the middle like his mother’s. I don’t think he has any sisters. He is what was called a dandy in my young days. I believe he is called a “dude” now. He is by no means a dangerous person. He thinks too much of himself to run any great personal risk, and he has too high an opinion of his own worth to do anything that is really low, vulgar, or mean. He is quite harmless, in fact; he is useful in a certain way: he is to young ladies what a tin rattle is to children, viz., a source of amusement.

But look toward the other end of the car. There is a man of an entirely different make-up from the “dude.” I refer to that big, red-faced man who is filling one seat with his immense person and another with his personal effects. He thinks a good deal of himself. But he is not much troubled about what other people think of him. ft makes but little difference to him if half a dozen women are standing for want of room to sit down. He does not think of moving his traps until the conductor gently reminds him that one sitting is all that he has paid for, and that three sittings in a crowded car is a little too much of a gratuity to one passenger. See with what an injured air he moves his property, and looks daggers at the two ladies who take the released seat. Do you ask who is he? I cannot tell you. But if I were going to define him, I should say that he is a sort of compromise between a beer barrel and a travelling cigar shop.

But, see, there is another character that is worth a passing thought. It is that little man near the middle of the car. He is just now talking to the big man with a bald head and sandy whiskers. He likes to talk with men larger than himself. He feels a sort of security in their presence. Look sharply at him. You can see conceit in his very looks and hear it in every tone of his voice. I dare say that he is now telling the big man of some feat of activity or strength in which either himself or some of his friends have acted a leading part. Deeds of daring and acts of prowess are among everyday occurrences in his active and venturesome life. And yet, perhaps, if the truth were known, this same little man never scared anybody very much, and never hurt anyone worse than he could do by bragging over them. But the train stops, and the little man goes out. Soon the conductor calls out “all aboard,” and we are on the move once more.

Short as our stop has been, it has given time for a new passenger to come into the car. This time it is a woman—a modest, timid, trembling, self-depreciating little woman. She comes in as if she was not sure that she had a right there, although she has bought and paid for a ticket which she still holds in her hand.

See how wistfully she looks over the seats as if hoping to find an empty seat, and yet fearing to do so. There is only one vacant sitting, the other end being taken up by a big boy, who looks as if he were in strange surroundings. “Is this seat engaged, please?” The question is put in a voice soft and musical as a lute. “No-’m, unless you have pre-empted it.” “I—I have not done anything to it,” she says in a frightened way. “Well—well nobody says you have. Sit down if you want to,” answers the youngster. The crimson deepens on her face as she timidly drops into one corner of the seat, giving a look of grateful acknowledgement to the boy who had been so kind as not to contest her right to a small part of the space that she has paid full price for. Whatever that little woman may do in other things, I do not think she will be a success as a traveller.

But here we are at another station, and a number go out. Among them is the big man who occupied the two seats. Mow let us watch those who come in. Ah ! Yes, there he is; I have been expecting him for some time, and here he is at last. I mean the “swell.” See with what self-importance he strides up the aisle. He is looking for a chance for two seats, facing each other, so that he can sit himself down in one of them and throw his morocco-covered feet on the cushion of the other.

Now he is seated, take a close look at him. He is a strange compound. It would be difficult to determine whether a feeling of contempt for ordinary humanity, a desire to display his mock jewellery, an inordinate love for self, or the hope that a good dinner is awaiting him at home, is just now predominating in that man’s thoughts and feelings.

He is of a class who are not of much use in the world’s activities, and yet he would be missed if he were gone. He furnishes a complete contrast with the modest little woman mentioned above. He is convenient to tailors, shoemakers and jewellers to exhibit their wares upon, and in him we can see how much puffing up humanity can bear without an explosion.

But here comes another subject for our gallery of pictures representing “life on the rail.” See that goodsized, elderly lady just coming into the car. That spruce-looking young man who carries her valise is likely her son, and he appreciates the relation. If I am not mistaken, we have here a family premier, a home secretary and finance minister all in one. She is just the kind of woman that a man could trust to manage his home, guard his interest, rule his household and handle his money—such a one as any man might be proud to call his wife, and one that any child ought to be glad to own for a mother. But we must not dwell too long in this lady’s company, however pleasant it might be to do so.

We find in the other end of the car another woman who is sufficiently characteristic to be worthy of a little attention. See that big, old, grey-haired lady sitting in the corner of the car just opposite the stove. She is a vain old dame, or I am no judge. Notice how she has her hair frizzed and banged. Look at the gay colours on her costly headgear. See how she fairly glitters with cheap decorations of various kinds. She is whimsical, too, as well as vain, and fastidious as well as whimsical. And if we may judge by the scowl that is sometimes on her brow, she has a bad temper and sharp tongue. We will not be much astray if we write “vixen” upon her forehead, and dismiss her as a second edition of “Mrs. Caudle,” the renowned subject of the “Caudle Curtain Lectures” that were on the market some years ago.

We will get one more picture illustrating “life on the rail” and then torn to some incidents in connection with the same theme. In selecting a subject for our last picture 1 find two claimants, and I hardly know which to take. There is that fidgety old man down near the door, and that blonde coquette sitting under the centre lamp and just now dividing her smiles among three young men who are playing around her like so many little satellites. On the whole I think the old man’s claims are the strongest, and besides, he is not so often seen as the other, so that we bad better take him while we have a chance. This little man differs in many ways from the one we met with a while ago. That one was comparatively young ; this one is old. That one had confidence in himself, and was satisfied with things generally. This one has no confidence in anybody, and is not satisfied with anything, lie is continually fidgeting about something or other. The train is going too slow and will be behind time for the stage, or it is going too fast and will be at the next station before the track is cleared for it, or it will jump off the rails and run down an embankment and do nobody knows what. And so this little man goes on all the time. But here is the station and we are freed from the little annoyance of the fidgety old man. He went out of the car expressing the opinion that the screeching of the engines, the ringing of bells, the rattling of the train and hard-heartedness of the officials, all taken together, make life on the rail so very uncomfortable that it is but little better than martyrdom, especially to nervous old men and women.

Incidents of Travel.

I was once going on the evening train from Palmerston to Kincardine. At the Listowel station a wedding party came aboard. They were going to Ethel. They were mostly young people, but they made things in general pretty lively while we were favoured with their company. Two of the young men seemed to act as sort of scapegoats for the crowd, as everything was charged to them. One of the young women seemed to enjoy a monopoly of the fun, as a word or two from her would start the giggle and “ha ha” among her companions at any time she chose to utter it.

The spirit of song, too, appeared to have boarded the train with them. The whole distance was whiled away by them either in singing or laughing at the jokes of the lady spoken of. When the train stopped at the station and they got off, I could not help serious thoughts and feelings, and I did offer a silent prayer for them, that the burdens of life might sit lightly upon their shoulders, that the cares and anxieties of life might not weigh too heavily upon their hearts, and that the snares and pitfalls along the path of life might never entangle their feet or do them harm.

A Cranky Old Woman.

The train from Toronto to Hamilton was about ready to start, when a fine-looking young couple came in, and took a seat near the end of the car, and only two seats from where I was sitting. I soon decided in my own mind that they were emigrants, that they were English, and that they belonged to the working-classes. Just then an old woman with a basket on her arm came in and sat on the wood-box, the car being crowded. It was not long before she drew the young woman into answering questions about herself and husband. Where I sat I could not help hearing what was passing between them. I soon learned that the man was a farm labourer and the woman had been a domestic servant; that they had been married one day, and had started for this country the next; that they had left all their relatives behind them; that they expected to find an old acquaintance in Hamilton; that the}’ had come here to make a home for themselves, and that the woman was a good deal lonesome and a little homesick.

When the old body bad got all the information she could, she said to the young woman, “O! I am so sorry that you have come to this country. I am from Scotland, and I am going back there just as soon as I can get money enough to take me there. This is a bad country to live in, and it is almost out of the question for old country people to live here at all, because the natives are such rogues and liars that you cannot trust them without being cheated, nor believe them without being deceived.”

The other woman by this time was crying, and nearly broken-hearted. Then I spoke to her and said,

“My good woman, you must not believe what that old lady is telling you. I have been in this country a great deal longer than she has, and I know what she is saying is not true. There are sharpers here the same as there are in all countries; but the great mass of the people, both natives and others, are the very reverse of what she represents them to be.

“I could give you the names of hundreds of families who came from the old country as you have done, and they are comfortable, and contented and happy in good homes of their own. Health, industry, sobriety and economy under the Divine guidance are sure to bring success in this land.”

She looked up and said, “We have health, industry, sobriety and confidence in God; we must learn economy by practice.”

I said to her, “Go ahead with a clear conscience and a resolute will, and may the Lord bless you, and guide you in the way to competence.”

The old woman was just levelling her artillery at me, when an old man in a seat behind me called out to me, “I say, stranger, I move that the daft auld body be sent to bedlam, for she does na ken what she is crackin’ about. Auld Scotland haes nae need o’ the likes o’ her. She is ower fond o’ the barley bree to be o’ ony use in ony land.”

The old lady subsided and the young one dried her tears.

A Medley of Song.

One evening I was on a train from Guelph to Palmerston. The train went very slow and it was long behind time. The night was very dark. There was a good deal of jerking and jolting as though the engine was trying to play “balky-horse.” It would stop, and then start with a sudden spring that made everything jar. Many of the passengers became very restless, and some of them impatient. One gentleman was pointed out to me as Senator Plumb, who had an engagement to deliver a political speech in some one of the villages ahead of us. He seemed to accept the situation as cheerfully as a man who had lots of poetry in his composition could be expected to do.

One lady attracted some attention by her lamentations about the baby that she knew was crying for her at home. An old couple who were on their way to visit the family of a married daughter, became quite uneasy at last when they found the}’ could not reach their destination before bed-time.

Just as everybody began to feel discontented a couple of young men in one end of the car started to sing —

“We won’t go home till morning.
Till daylight does appear.”

The effect seemed to be almost magical. In a moment some boys in the other end of the car commenced at the top of their voices to sing,

“There’s one more river to cross.”

They would say at every second verse,

“One more station to pass,”

and then laugh over their success in making the change.

Two young ladies near the middle of the car began to sing, in a clear, sweet tone the

“Sweet by and bye.”

The mingling of the voices, and the blending of the different tunes, along with the great diversity of sentiment, made the performance one of more than ordinary attractiveness. As the train drove into the station at the end of the trip, I could not help wishing that on the morning of the resurrection, and after the last river is crossed, these singers may all find a home in “the sweet by and bye.”

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.