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How I Sent My Aunt to Baltimore

A True Story
By Charles Stewart Davison


VERY well-regulated New Englander is, or should be, possessed of at least three maiden aunts, whose ages, by the way, never by any possibility aggregate less than one hundred and ninety-five to two hundred and forty years. While not desiring to arrogate to myself any superiority in this respect over the average descendant of the pilgrim fathers, I can, or rather could, at the time when the events hereinafter detailed occurred, have laid claim to this distinctive badge of Puritan descent. In the course of events, which may possibly be regarded as natural, the oldest of my three aunts, then a frail and delicate old lady of about seventy-four, became (some six years hence) overwhelmed with a desire to travel. Her first pilgrimage extended as far from the "centre of the universe" as Staten Island. After a brief stay at our house she determined that the next step in her peregrinations should he to the house of a married sister residing in Baltimore. It being impossible, on account of other duties, that any member of the family should accompany her, I was delegated, as being the most experienced traveller and the possessor of the greatest executive ability in the family, to see her safely placed in some seat in some drawing-room car, which should deposit her, if not in the arms of her relatives in Maryland, at least in the Baltimore railroad depot.

The enterprising Canadian, who now rules the destinies of Staten Island, having at that time not yet burst upon an astounded community in the full and effulgent glory of Rapid Transit, islanders were accustomed to visit the city of New York at comparatively irregular, but officially stated, periods. On consideration, it seemed unnecessary to leave Staten Island by a boat which would afford opportunity for, at the very least, fifty-five minutes reflection in the railroad depot before train time, and an alluring time-table promised a much closer connection by the succeeding boat. We therefore determined to take it. It is needless to say that that boat was five minutes late in starting; unnecessary to add that at New York a passing canal-boat delayed for a few minutes our entrance into the ferry slip; and it surely was nothing more than might be expected, that an elevated train at South Ferry should leave one end of the platform as we reached the other. As a result, however, of these wholly natural forces, we entered the ferry-house on the New York side of the North River with three minutes to spare before the last boat which would catch a fast through train, whose intermediate stops were so few and brief as not to deserve mention, would leave. With the tendency which has been well called "the gorgeous orientalism of the Western mind," this train bore a special name which had become familiar as its destination to many ears, including my own. From this fact many troubles thereafter arose, as will be seen. Fortunately, one thing was in our favor, my aunt's trunk had preceded us and, with a calm confidence in the baggage system in vogue in this country, it reposed on one end awaiting its inevitable tagging, in front of the baggage counter, as I had time to notice while dashing into the ferry-house. Cautioning my aunt under no circumstances to move until I returned, I rushed to the ticket-office, tossed the man a ten-dollar bill, and in my haste, with the train on my mind, mentioned mechanically the name by which it was known, and which included the name of an intermediate city. It will be readily seen how the name of the train she was to travel by momentarily obliterated all consciousness as to the objective point of the journey.

I had just time enough to wonder, in a semi-stupefied way, as to the amount of change that was returned out of the ten-dollar bill, while hurrying to the baggage-room. There I silently exhibited the ticket, was handed a check, and rushed back to my aunt. I hurried her through the gates, and we had a few moments' breathing time crossing the river. Simultaneously, on our arrival at the New Jersey side of the North River, the gates leading to the train were opened, and the stentorian guardian of the portal recited, in unintelligible tones, the names of most of the railroad stations of the United States. I found time, however, to get a seat-ticket at the little window in the extreme right-hand corner of the waiting-room, where, for the purpose of making matters as inconvenient as possible, as it momentarily seemed to me, those valuable pieces of pasteboard were dealt out. Fortunately, I noticed that the seat assigned on the little slip of card handed me, was No.25, in car No. 1. But here, again, instead of asking for a seat to any particular place, I silently exhibited the railroad ticket which I had purchased on the other side of the river. We hurried through the gates, found car No. 1, and placing my aunt in the first vacant chair, I proceeded to look for seat No. 25. As I turned from her to do so, I noticed that the sides of the station were gently slipping past the car. Asking the nearest person if it was possible that the train had already started, I received so unqualified an affirmative response that no possible doubt could remain. As the train's first stop was a full hour away, and as I had several matters needing attention in New York, the conclusion was forced upon me that extreme promptness would alone procure their being duly attended to. Selecting the nearest traveller, I thrust into his hands my aunt's railroad tickets, her little wicker basket of lunch, and a novel purchased at the elevated station; asked him in one breathless phrase to find her seat for her, fled to the door, and jumped from the steps as the train cleared the end of the long station. After performing various agile contortions in the air, with a view to an ultimate recovery of equilibrium, I rested from my labors in this respect and walked slowly back along the platform, reflecting upon the very unsatisfactory way in which I had started her on her journey, and naturally, as anyone in contemplative mood would, I thrust my hands into the pockets of my overcoat. With gloomy forebodings I extracted from one pocket a strange object. It was my aunt's purse, which I had taken from her that I might, for greater security, put her trunk-check in one of its compartments. This raised a new doubt, if not a new complication. It was clearly necessary to make certain beyond peradventure that she should be met on her arrival at her destination, since she had no money with her. With this object in view, I made my way to the telegraph window in the station, secured a blank, and wrote: - Esq., No. - Lexington Street, Baltimore? The pen dropped from my hand. Photographed on the mental wall before my inward eye, aroused by this first recognition of Baltimore as a distinct entity, appeared the designation of the train, including the name of the intermediate city. In a flash the superabundance of change which I had received at the ticket office became understandable. There could be no doubt. I had started an elderly lady, totally inexperienced in the ways of the world at large, and of the travelling world in particular, without money and with out power of reclaiming her trunk, with a ticket and a seat only to a point a couple of hundred miles short of her destination.

Desperate cases need prompt action.

I had in mind but one idea, that if I could hire a special locomotive I might overtake the train at its first stopping-place.

Looking firmly at the telegraph operator, I said, "Has this road got any superintendent?"

"Yes."

"Where is he?"

"Outside, to the right, upstairs." And outside, to the right, upstairs, I proceeded.

Opening a door, I came on several clerks seated at desks, writing.

"Where is the superintendent?"

"Through there," said one, pointing. Through there I went.

I found a medium-sized room; a desk in the centre, a youngish man of dark complexion and smooth-shaven face - a man not over thirty-five, of pleasing impression and unruffled front, seated at it.

"Are you the superintendent?"

"Yes."

I sat down.

Looking at him with as much of earnest entreaty, desperate resolve, alarm, determination, and a few other qualities as I could summon to my instant aid, I said, without a breath or pause, "I have just started an old lady inexperienced in travelling who wants to go to Baltimore with tickets only half-way and without any money; she is in car No. 1, seat 25."

Never yet have I seen a man rise so instantly, so calmly, and so unconsciously to the exact level of an occasion. He smiled and touched a bell and said, "That is all right As long as she does not get scared and get off the train, we've got her. I will have them flag the train, and tell the conductor to look out for her." While he talked he wrote. Almost instantly the door opened. A messenger appeared. The message was finished. It read, "Conductor, train 37. Elderly lady, car No. 1, seat 25. is to go through to Baltimore, whether she has tickets or not. Don't let her leave the train." Handing the slip to the messenger he turned to me and repeated, with a smile, "As long as we have got her on the train she is all right. Now," he said, continuing, "we will telegraph to the agent at the station at which her tickets expire, to buy her a ticket on to Baltimore, and to buy the same parlor-car seat she is now in, on to Baltimore, and to take the tickets to her on the train." In two minutes the telegram was sent. "Now," he said, "we will telegraph the conductor fully, at his first regular stop, what the circumstances are. And," said he, turning again to me, "You say she has no money." "I have her purse here," I replied. " Well," he said, "we will tell the conductor to hand her ten dollars in change." While talking his pen was busy. In a moment more he read me a concise statement of the facts of the case, addressed to the conductor at the first way-station. This despatched, he sat back in his chair and reflected for a moment. "Now," he said, pushing over to me a pad of paper and a pencil, "she won't know what all this means, and may get alarmed. Had you not better send her a long conversational telegram, to be delivered on the train?"

I wrote some twenty lines explaining the situation, telling her that all she need do was to remain in her seat until the train reached Baltimore, that tickets and money would be supplied to her, that under no circumstances was she to leave the train, and that I was overwhelmed with sorrow at having so badly arranged her journey. While writing this telegram another door opened, and a head and hand appeared through it. The hand waved a little slip of yellow paper, and the head said, "Conductor, train 37, says, elderly lady all right" An enormous weight rolled from my mind. The man who, so far as my purview extended, controlled the destinies of creation, then said, "Now, how are you going to get her purse and trunk check, which I see you have, to her?"

"I thought of sending them by mail."

"Well, suppose you write her a note and do it up with the purse in a package, and I will send it down the line so she can get it to-night. We have a wild-cat engine going over the line in about half an hour." The resources of the road seemed inexhaustible, and it is needless to say that to this further extent I availed myself of them. But before the package was sealed, another idea had occurred to the superintendent, who indeed, I think, rather made a point of showing me what the possibilities of their system of management were. "That trunk check," he said, "is only for the same point as her tickets. What is its number?" I told him. "Now," said he, "we will telegraph the baggage-master there, that that piece of luggage though checked only to his point, is not to be put off; but is to go on to Baltimore, where it will he redeemed on the original check."

Again his pen sought the invaluable pad, and the final message was despatched.

With a general feeling that I had incurred anywhere from one to five thousand dollars of expense, I inquired in relation to this delicate question. "Well," said he, "now let me see. The difference in fares is (referring to a schedule) $3, the parlor-car seat is $1. We gave her $10 in the train (observe the unconscious certainty with which he spoke of that which he had by telegraph ordered done being already the fact) that makes in all $14."

But," I said, "is there no charge for all these telegrams and the trouble that the road has been put to in the matter?" "Oh, no," he said, "all these are matters of detail;" giving one the general impression that "the road" stood in loco parentis to those who travelled by it, With thanks which were sincere, if not effusive, I was about leaving, when again the head and yellow-slipped hand appeared through the door. "Ticket agent number nine-two-three says, All right. Baggage-master number four-four-five says, All right," and the head vanished. I came away with the general stunned feeling which we all experience when we run up against an approximately perfect system, working without hitch or delay. On the succeeding evening I learned by letter from my aunt that it had not been mere appearance of efficiency. As she expressed it, before she knew anything was wrong, people kept bringing her telegrams, and handing her money, and saying that everything was all right. The conductor came to her immediately after the train was flagged, explained to her that her tickets were accidentally for the wrong place (of which she had not become aware), but that she would be carried on to Baltimore, and that under no circumstances was she to leave the car or the train. Came to her again at the first stop and handed her ten dollars. A ticket agent came to her thereafter and handed her new tickets to take her to Baltimore. She was met at Baltimore in accordance with a telegram which I forgot to mention was also despatched by my friend, the superintendent, and later in the evening her purse and trunk check were delivered to her at her sister's house.

The above might well be thought to be an imaginary sketch of what might be done on and by a well-organized road. It is, however, something more than that; it is an exact statement of facts which actually occurred.

RailroadStories, 2002.

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