It was a minute past the time when the "through" night
express should start, but still the ponderous engine stood motionless, the
steam escaping with a terrific roar, and mounting high in the air, first
in a vigorous jet, and then spreading in dull, whitened clouds that soon
mingled with and were lost in the denser mass and greater volume of the
rolling smoke. The hands of the illuminated clock, placed on the depot
wall, had passed the points on the dial that indicated the hour of
departure, and now stood at not more than a minute after; but even so
small a particle of time was of importance, for this, the night express,
was the particular feature of this particular road, and to get it to its
destination at the advertised instant was the duty and pride of every
employee; for this, every resource of the great corporation was employed,
every sacrifice of other considerations made. Over those miles and miles
of shining rails, on which the train must run all night, lay the road from
West to East and from East to West, and upon the speed and certainty with
which they were covered depended many an important affair - the success or
failure of a venture, sometimes the life or death of a Cause.
The station-master hurried up to the
engine and looked in the window.
"What's the matter, Irby?" he said
to the engineer.
"Spurlock's not here," answered the
man, who sat on the narrow transverse
seat in the cab, with his hand on the
heavy, shining, round-tipped handle of
"Where is he?"
"Don't know," replied Irby. "He
stepped off five minutes ago, saying he'd
be back directly."
"If he isn't here in thirty seconds
I'll have to give you another fireman."
Everything indicated readiness for departure. The loungers along the
broad, cemented walk of the station -
those who had sought a little exercise
before the long, cramped ride - had
mounted to the cars; and the porters, after picking up the little stools placed before
the steps of the "sleepers." stood ready
all along the line to swing themselves on
to the platforms as soon as the series
of jarring jerks with which a train straightens itself out for work, indicated that
the "730" was off.
The scene as it now presented itself - a minute
and more after the time when "No.47" should have been under way - was
characteristically American, for nowhere else in the world is quite its
like to be found. The huge arched station (so large that, numerous as were
the hard, clear, powerful electric lights, there still were left many
areas of gloom) echoed and re-echoed with multitudinous sounds, and,
closing your eyes, you might almost have imagined yourself in an asylum
for demented noises, the air was so burdened with the sustained uproar,
distressed by such brazen clangor, torn by so many a wild shriek. The
gleaming steel rails banded the broad, hoarded space, stretching in
innumerable lines far across to the opposite wall now running with the
parallel exactness of a copy-book; now crossing and recrossing each other
in what seemed inextricable confusion. Long strings of cars, their windows
all aglow, stood here or there - just arrived, or just on the point of
leaving - this train "in," after having run all day along the shores of
the great lakes; that ready to plunge into the dark Pennsylvania forests,
and hurry away, perhaps, past some flaming oil-well into the more distant
coal-fields. People swarmed everywhere - passengers and employees,
baggage-men, brake-men, and express-men. Heavy trucks, overloaded with
luggage, were wildly trundled through the place; small iron carriages,
piled high with mail-bags, were recklessly rolled past; and in and out
darted the bearers of flaming torches that cast a wild glare about them as
they moved, who, with long-handled hammers tested the car-wheels with
ringing blows. And away in the distance, where the immense, arched Opening
of the station permitted a glimpse of the darkness beyond, gleamed
innumerable lights - green, red and orange - some stationary and arranged
in complex designs, others swinging in eccentric circles, or flitting like
the ignes fatui
along the ground, now appearing and
"Here he comes! " shouted a voice
somewhere in remote darkness.
"Hurry up, commanded the station-master.; and, with a running accompaniment of questions, exhortations,
and admonitions, lit up by some scattered execrations, a slight man, dressed
in the blackened and greasy overalls
and "jumper" of a laborer, ran along
the walk and mounted the engine.
"Let her go, Dan," he said.
The engineer glanced at the conductor
leaning against the wall; saw him quickly
shut his watch and wave his hand, One
pull on a lever, already under his hand,
and the piston-rods began to glide out
and in, the huge driving-wheels to revolve, and the train, with almost a dislocating shock, so hurried had been the
start, was finally off.
"What was it, Jeff?" said Irby.
"Why," answered Spurlock, with a
hardly perceptible hesitation, "a little
celebration of my own. Do you forget
what night it is?"
No," answered the other and older
man, a trifle sharply. "But what did
you promise me?"
"It's only once a year," responded
Spurlock, sullenly, "and I haven't
touched a thing for ten weeks."
Irby did not answer, but peered out
into the darkness through the narrow
The depot had been left behind, and
the engine was now passing through
the outer business belt of the great city.
Huge, silent warehouses, with their shutters closed, quite as if they had gone to
sleep with iron lids shut over their innumerable eyes, were to be seen along
the deserted streets; high chimneys
here and there rose above the roofs -
they might have been columns supporting the leaden sky - the dull clouds of
smoke that lazily seemed to overflow
them only distinguishable from the
dark heavens by their greater density,
It had been snowing during the early
evening, but the flakes had melted as
they fell, and the ill-paved roads were
full of spreading pools that caught the rays
cast by the glowing embers in the
engine's fire-box, and, seeming to hold
them for an instant in dull reflection,
threw them weakly back, And now the
pavements cease altogether; no longer
are there any gas-lamps or electric
lights to reveal the dripping squalor,
but as one looks ahead there are to be
seen by the spreading illumination of
the headlight only the shining, converging rails, and between them, and on
either side, the sodden, half-frozen earth,
Now only infrequent buildings start into
view; but there appear instead long,
shadowy lines of freight cars, apparently
innumerable, drawn up on either side
of the track, by which the engine thunders with reverberating clatter - the
strange but still familiar characters
letters, and names on their many-colored sides - the stars, the diamonds,
the crosses, the often-repeated initials, the
numbers, reaching sometimes into the
tens of thousands - only showing for an
instant in the dim rays cast by the single
light in the engine, and then quickly
blotted out by the broad hand of darkness, At length these, too, are gone, and
now there is nothing to be seen but the
occasional hut of some switch-tender,
and the constantly recurring telegraph
poles that so rapidly flash in and out of
sight. Far behind appears in the sky a
dull, orange glow that marks the position of the town that has been left behind, but all before is unbroken blackness. Now, at last, the train has reached
the open country, Irby pushes the throttle-valve still farther open, and the engine,
with a quiver, almost such as a spirited
horse will give at the touch of the spur,
plunges more swiftly forward, and finally
tears along at almost full running speed,
over fifty miles an hour through the
The narrow place in which the men are
seated, face to face, is but dimly illuminated. They are neither of them particularly exceptional-looking persons; you might
see their like almost any day through
an engine's window and not turn to look
again, and still their faces are not without
a certain stern significance - the significance to be found in the countenances
of most men who have for any length of
time held what might be called "non-commissioned" office in the army of labor, where, though opportunity of honor is
rare, responsibility is great and incessant.
Irby, ten years the older of the two,
heavy, but with a muscular strength that
enables him to move with perfect ease in
spite of his stoutness, has in his countenance that indescribable something that
indicates firmness, even obstinacy ; while
in the mobile features, more shifting
glance, and more changeful expression of
his companion you could as readily detect
the equally evident, but more subtle evidences of weakness and irresolution, And
yet he was a pretty fellow enough with his
thick, lustrous, black hair, and his small,
pointed mustache, his highly colored
cheeks and his dull, dark eyes. Of graceful build too - his belt was drawn about a
waist as small almost as a woman's - slight
but lithesome, a man to surprise you with
"Don't it make you feel, Dan, as if we
were regularly out in the cold," he said,
"to be on this job to-night?"
"Well, you see," answered Irby, argumentatively, "all the other boys have got sweethearts
or wives, and it's only natural they
should want the evening to themselves, Now what's Christmas Eve to us -
you, who haven't got a belonging in the world,
as you say, and I -"
Irby paused, whether or not he saw
something worthy of attention in what
seemed the impenetrable night, Spurlock
could not determine, but the engineer
looked through the window with what appeared increased attention.
"'Tain't much like one's general notion
of a Christmas," he added at length.
"No," answered Spurlock.
Neither spoke again for some time, and
Spurlock busied himself with the flapping
canvas curtain that gave doubtful shelter
to the occupants of the cab, for the icy
wind blew briskly as the scudding clouds
"Let me see," said Irby at length.
"This time of the year rather lends itself
to reckoning - how long is it now that
we've travelled along together?"
"Going on eight months," answered
Spurlock, "from the time when you first
set me straight."
Irby glanced across at the man before
him, "Set him straight." Yes, he had
"set him straight," and the memory
came to him of what Spurlock had been,
a picture rose before him of how Spurlock
looked when he first saw him. A thin,
bent form, with pallid face, and trembling, it would almost seem palsied, hands,
dressed in a mysterious garment that was
only a remote suggestion of a coat, and
with all his other clothes correspondingly
frayed and tattered. A being, coming
from no one knew where, and going no
one cared whither - slinking out to bask
in the sunshine, as if doubtful if the world,
which afforded him so little, might not
grudge and deny him even this; leading
one of those mysterious, almost reptilian
existences in the dark holes and corners
of the earth, which, were they not so common, would seem more awful and more
significant, but which, seen every day, we
scarcely notice and easily allow to pass
Irby had first seen the ill-looking creature loitering about the confines of the station, sometimes penetrating even to the
engine-yard and standing at gaze before
the big, resplendent, perfectly "groomed" locomotive - looking at it revengefully, as if resentful of the fact that this
thing of iron and steel should receive
such care, when he, a creature of flesh
and blood, was so destitute. Such as he
was, he had been the jest, the jeer of the
whole place. There was no one so insignificant that he did not dare to scoff at
him, and it seemed that there was no indignity that the poor creature would not
endure. But one day from his lofty post
Irby had noticed that a row was going on.
In that neighborhood - in the circles in
which his locomotive moved, that was a
thing of no uncommon occurrence, but
this particular difficulty seemed snore serious than was commonly the case.
"What's the matter?" he shouted.
"Joe Bannager's been givin' the tramp
mor'n he can stand an' he's showed fight,"
was the answer.
Irby let himself down from the engine
and joined the crowd just in time to see
the burly Bannager very neatly knocked
out of time by the now animated vagabond, to the admiration of the on-lookers.
If you've got spirit enough for that,"
said Irby, looking curiously at the now
erect figure of the stranger, "you've got
spirit enough to be a man. Come with
He had taken Spurlock over to the engine, and in its torrid shade had inspected
him more thoroughly.
"If I gave you money, would you drink
it up?" he asked.
"Try me and see," said the man.
Irby handed him a bill, and the next
day there had appeared before him a person whom he did not at first recognize.
It was Spurlock, decked in a suit of the
poorest clothing, but clean and decent
"Give me something to do," he had
Irby had again looked at him scrutinizingly. It had always been his - Irby's
boast, that he knew a man, when he saw
one, who had anything in him, and after
a moments contemplation, which the
other had borne unflinchingly, he spoke
"My fireman's laid up, perhaps I might
get you taken on.
"All right," answered Spurlock.
"You've picked me out of the gutter
now set me on the walk."
And this, Irby thought, was
the same man who now sat opposite to him, Indeed, Spurlock had changed.
As he quickly emerged from his state of degradation, he displayed unexpected intelligence, exhibiting a
surprising knowledge about all sorts of unlikely
things. Irby, who had started in life with only
a limited knowledge of reading and
writing, but who had graduated long ago with "honors" from the great University
of the Newspapers, was thoroughly able to appreciate higher acquirements
than his own, and both marveled
and admired. Spurlock never spoke of his
past, and Irby had never asked him
a question. That it was not the usual past of
a man in his position Irby felt sure; but
they were both of that world that should
in truth be called the "great world," instead of the insignificant portion that
now bears that name, where few questions
are asked, for the reason that a close knowledge of the strange haps and mishaps
of life has dulled curiosity. Day and
night they had travelled together in the
little cab, over thousands of miles,
through heat and cold, through storm and
sunshine, and gradually there had grown up
in Irby a real friendship for this being
whom he had, as it were, created. He
looked at Spurlock, and reflecting that
had it not been for him, the alert, self-respecting man, who was now his companion would have been in a pauper's grave
or leading a life than which any death
would be better, he took credit to himself
for what he could almost regard as his
handiwork, and beamed upon him with
something like affection.
"Seeing the time it is," said Spurlock,
at length, "I've got a Christmas present
for you, Dan, and I don't know but 1
might as well give it to you now as another time."
He reached up and took down his coat
from the place where it hung, then drawing out a tobacco-pouch, cheaply embroidered, handed it across to the engineer. Irby took it, opened it, and found
instead of tobacco, a carefully folded
"The money you lent me that time,
you know," explained Spurlock.
Irby stretched out his hand, with the
powerful, blunted fingers, to the younger man, who took it and shook it roughly
with an awkward consciousness. Neither
The wide plains that lay around the
City - mere bare, uncultivable barrens -
had been swiftly traversed, and now the
track ran over land partly uncleared. In
and out it darted through the thick woods,
plunging into the narrow openings among
the dark, serried trunks and spreading
branches, as if into some tunneled mountain.
"You've been the making of me, Dan."
Spurlock went on, "and if I come to
anything now it'll be your doing."
"The engine's seemed a different place
since you've been on it, Jeff," he said,
quietly, "an' so I guess we're square."
Another of those long silences followed,
which will occur between people who are
constantly together - one of those pauses
that indicate intimacy more fully than any
"I wasn't always what you found me,
Dan," said Spurlock, finally.
Irby glanced at his companion.
"But I began bad," the other went on,
"and I kept on growing worse. I was the
black sheep of a particularly white flock,
and, by contrast, my color only showed
up the more. Where I was born, or what
or when, don't matter. I wouldn't like to
show disrespect for any of my highly respectable relations by bringing them into
any such unfortunate society as mine."
He paused, and the expression of recklessness that had lain on his countenance,
almost like a mask - so evidently unnatural was it - seemed suddenly to be
"The fiend take it, Dan," said he,
"there's something in this cursed time
that sets you remembering."
Irby's face darkened; it appeared as if
the past had also come up before him with
unusual vividness, and that the vision was
disquieting and painful.
"I don't think I ever came near being
respectable in my life but once," continued Spurlock, dully, almost as if some
strange power were forcing him to speak
- as if volition had nothing to do with it.
"But," he went on, "we're generally standing on the
ground even whets we're looking at the clouds. Oh,
of course it was a woman that did it, You,
Dan, you can't understand that; you - you've
the face of a true misogynist. You see,"
he broke out, "I haven't forgot all that my
little 'fresh-water' college taught me. You're the
kind that are superior to that inferior influence."
"I really believe that I could have reformed then," murmured Spurlock
after another pause, "for I loved her. Strange how you feel when you
really love a woman. There seems to come out of the very holes and corners
of your being feelings and sentiments and aspirations that you never knew
you had before. Mind I don't say that the same cause doesn't sometimes
work a very different way on your nature - doesn't stir up and set moving
a number of dark, hideous things also - passions, jealousies, hatreds -
that you never suspected were in you. Oh, it's a queer thing this love -
it's like a streak of varnish across the natural wood that brings out the
beauty of the grain and the ugliness of the knots as well. I loved her
from the first time I set my eyes on her pretty, pale face. Oh, don't be
frightened. I'm not going to tell you a yarn, for there's none to tell.
But Agnes Holcombe was the only one who could ever have made anything out
"Women," said Irby, slowly, "do a
deal of good when they don't - do a deal
She could have been the making of
me. But circumstances -"
"How long ago was it?" interrupted
"About eighteen months,"
"Eighteen months." With the instinct
that leads every one to measure the nearness or remoteness of an event by its relation in time to their own lives, Irby
thought of himself as he had been a year
and a half before. That, he remembered,
was before his quarrel with Mabel - before
the final separation. He ground his teeth
in sudden rage. Could he not get the
miserable affair out of his mind; must
everything he heard or saw always serve
to remind him of it?
The train had now for some time
been on its way, dashing by isolated farmhouses, usually, at this hour,
merely black shapes in the dim landscape,
but to-night with windows all alight; past
scattered groups of cottages where the
smoke, rolling comfortably from the
chimneys suggested glowing and generous hearths; in and out of villages;
where a quickly opened, quickly closed
door would often suddenly disclose some
bright interior. And now the spreading
glow in the sky before them proved that
they were again approaching a city.
Stronger, brighter, more diffused it grew
as the train spun swiftly on; and finally
the many detached points of light showed
that they were quite near. Again the engine plunged among long lines of coal-trucks and freight-cars - again clattered
by the echoing walls of great factories,
and finally, at decreased speed, puffed
into the city. As it chanced in this particular place the tracks lay along streets
that crossed some of the great thorough-fares, and sometimes for a short distance
even ran in them. It was hardly more
than nine o'clock, and the sidewalks were
thronged. It seemed as if the whole town
had turned out, and yet there must have
been many who were at home. Every
shop was open - was brilliant with the best
display it was possible for it to make.
Here, as at the place they had left, it had
evidently been snowing during the day,
but here the wind had blown boisterously
and long enough to dry the walks and
bring a crackling sheet of ice on the surface of the street puddles. There was a
briskness in the air well accordant with
the time, and there was an animation in
the crowd that clearly indicated that it
was no concourse such as might ordinarily be found in and before the stores.
It was much larger, it was much more
alert, and it was much more self-satisfied
and self-important; certainly it was much
jollier. You might have jostled it as
much as you pleased without exciting
anything but good-natured remonstrance,
you could tread on its toes with nearly
perfect impunity. It was a true Christmas crowd in every aspect and every attribute - baskets, bundles, and all - and as
the great engine slowly ground its way
along, the bell sounding with regular
brazen clang, the two men in the cab
gazed upon the animated spectacle with
greedy eyes. They looked upon it all as
aliens in a double sense - separated from
it in situation and in mood - and the
knowledge of their twofold remoteness
filled each with a rebellious bitterness
that strengthened as they went on. It all
seemed like some mocking show prepared
for their special torment - some deluding
mirage as tantalizing as the semblance of
water is to the thirsty traveller of the
The stop in the dark, nearly deserted
depot, was not long, and soon they
were out again in the populous quarters of the town, It was Christmas time
at its brightest and best - cheerful Noel -
in its most comfortable mood, It was
Christmas Eve - more mirthful, better
perhaps than Christmas itself - as a
promise is often better than a fulfillment.
That feeling of the time that calls upon
all to "eat, drink, and be merry," found
most ample manifestation - the sense of
human fellowship that, let what may be
said, is just a little stronger on and about
the wonderful December day than at any
other time of the year, was evident everywhere. Gazing like prisoners through
prison bars, the two men avidly drank in
the scene, its very geniality making them
the more morose.
And as the engine passed on again into
the desolate country - between the brown
banks and broken fences - the men were
almost tempted to rub their eyes and ask
themselves if really what they had seen
had not been a dream, so sudden had
been its appearance, so apparently doubtful its reality, even while it was before
them, and so absolute its eclipse.
"Agnes Holcombe," said Irby, half to
drive from his mind tile memories that
tormented him; half to lead Spurlock to
talk further of himself.
"Agnes Holcombe," repeated Spurlock. "That of course wasn't her real
name, as I soon found out."
"Not her real name?" Irby half
No," said Spurlock. "Though
there's but little to tell I might as well
tell you that little. It all happened out at
"Arapago?" repeated Irby, glancing
"Yes, Arapago," continued Spurlock.
"It was one of my respectable times -
when I was still struggling. I was clerk
in one of the big freight depots. One
night I was sitting in that park that looks
out over the lake when I saw a woman on
the next bench to mine. I saw that she
was pretty and that she was crying. The
two things were too much for me - they
ought to be for any man, I made an excuse to speak to her, she answered me
and we had a long talk. I asked her
where she lived, but although she would
not tell me, she promised to meet me on
the night after the next, at the same place.
She kept her word, and it was the first of
many meetings. Dan, I loved that woman,
and, what is the strangest thing, I loved
her as I never loved another. It almost
seemed as if I didn't want her to love me,
why, man, the ground she walked on, it
seemed to me, was the only thing that I
was fit to touch. There are some women
who can make you feel like that, though,
like as not, they're laughing at you all
the time. One night I followed her, to
find out if I could know something about
"Well," said Irby, impatiently, and yet
"I followed her to a pretty little house
just where the city begins to break up and
you get a little air and space."
"Yes," said Irby, looking at his fireman with a curious glitter in his eyes.
"It was in Canestoga Street, number
one hundred and seventeen - queer how
you'll remember those little things - and
there she went in, with that air you know
that one has when going into a familiar
"Yes," said Irby, as he leaned forward
to look at one of the gauges, and then
again fixed his eyes on Spurlock with the
same intensity of gaze.
"She was mad enough when she found
out what I'd done, but she soon forgave
me. And it was there we met when her
husband was away." He paused, then
added quickly, "What's the matter,
"Nothing," answered Irby;
"Yes, and when he was there she'd come to the park sometimes; but I
generally saw her in the garden. I learned all about her from the people
in the neighborhood, but I never let her know that I knew the truth,
though she must have suspected that I did. I've seen enough not to appear
to know any more than a woman wants that you should. She was married, so
they told me, to a man a good deal older than herself who, though he was
generally well considered, was thought by the neighbors a little too
strict and glum for her. I imagined I saw how it was. He was an engineer
on one of the Western roads, away half the time, and the poor young thing
was left all alone. I think he made her pretty unhappy, and so the
inevitable happened, and I happened to be the inevitable, though in this
case the inevitable wasn't so very much after all."
"Go on," said Irby.
"Though neither of us ever spoke
about it, I gathered from what I picked
up that it was only when her husband -
Shaw, that was the engineer's name - was
away that I could appear. Then, when it
was dark enough, I'd slip over the white
picket-fence and sit with her in the arbor
under the grape-vines. I never kissed her
but - once
Before Spurlock had time to do more than
instinctively raise his arm in defense, Irby was upon him, and with an
iron wrench that he had snatched from its place had felled him with one
blow to the floor, where he lay, an almost shapeless
heap, on the hot, riveted, iron plates.
What Irby consciously noticed next
was that the train was swiftly running over
the causeway built across the
widespreading marshes that lay an hour and more beyond the last stopping-place. It was
not that the sky was clearer and
therefore gave more light, but there was more of
it, stretching as it did to the horizon,
and Irby could distinctly see the dull,
sullen waters above which, on the
embankment, the locomotive so swiftly moved
along; could mark the acres and acres of
low-lying land partially covered with rank
grass and partially with tall, tangled,
aquatic plants. It was a sad, desolate
place at any time, hut now, seen only by
the uncertain light of the stars - the wind
had torn the clouds from the sky - it was
indeed forbidding and awful.
In Irby's mind was an uneasy consciousness that something unusual had
happened, what, he half knew, yet hardly
could have told. With the instinct of
his calling, he glanced first at all the
cocks and levers about him, then looked
cautiously around. Yes, there it was,
more like some bundle of old clothes than
the form of a man, for Spurlock had fallen
face down, with his arms doubled up
under him, and there was no pallid countenance, no worn, blackened hand to
show what was really there. Irby did not
start, he had half-prepared himself for
what he was to see, but only gazed intently, almost apathetically, at the object at his feet. Then his eyes caught
something that needed attention in the
machinery, and he, with action almost as
automatic as that of any one of the engine's appliances, set it right. The fires
must have burnt low, he thought; but
how could he replenish them? Dulled as
his mind was, it seemed an insurmountable difficulty that Spurlock's body lay on
the floor - how could it be possible to
open the furnace door? how shovel in the
coal? But gradually perception became
clearer - that the engine should be run
all right seemed to him more important
than anything else - and he left the shelf-like seat on which he had been sitting,
and picking up the body carefully, placed
it in a corner, with the back against the
wall of the cab and the side of the opposite bench. Then he threw open the
furnace-door. With the glare of what
seemed to him the nether pit, the tongues
of flame, writhing and twisting in the
strong draft, leaped up, licking around
the iron edges of their prison-house. The
whole place was illuminated with the
fierce, ruddy light, and even the face of
the man whom he had struck down
seemed to gain even something more than
its natural color. Drawing back the canvas screen he grasped Spurlock's shovel
and cast the coals into the furnace's
mouth; then he carefully drew together
the curtain, shut the opened door, mounted to his seat, and glanced down the
straight road that seemed almost to slip
under the engine and glide away. Fancies, rather than such positive thoughts
as it would seem should be the natural
and unavoidable outcome of the situation,
filled his brain. First, there started into
quick vision the astonishment, the horror
of the officials, when he should ride into
the next station with a murdered man on
the engine with him, There seemed
something so grotesquely ludicrous in the
idea, that he almost laughed aloud. Then
he listlessly thought of what the newspapers would say - of the heavy headlines
and sensational sentences. People would
talk about it the next day - Christmas
Day - Christmas of all days. The sense
of the awful inharmony between what he
had done and what the feeling of the time
enjoyed, brought him the first thrill of
horror that he had felt. His regular respiration was broken by a quick, raucus
gasp, and on his brow he felt the chilly
dew of terror.
Christmas Eve! It seemed to Irby
that everything of any consequence to
him had happened on Christmas Eve. It
was one Christmas Eve that he had been
married; it was on the next Christmas
Eve that the baby was born; it was only
just before Christmas Eve, a year past, that
they - Mabel and he - had their final misunderstanding and had parted; he swearing that though she might wish to seek
his forgiveness she should not have the
chance. So he had gone to a distant
place, where, under a new name - perhaps
even then apprehensive that he might not
be able to withstand her pleading should
she attempt to soften his heart - he had
sought new employment, while she had
fled he knew not whither.
He had often wondered, sometimes
doubted, whether he had not been unjust
to her. There were even times when he
had accused himself of blind cruelty to
her, and had felt impelled, then and there,
to seek her out wherever she might be,
and ask her forgiveness. But he had been
too deeply hurt; the wound, to one of his
nature, was too grievous to permit any
such action, and he had quickly fallen
back into his old state of obduracy and
inert despair. For days before he had
finally spoken to her, he had watched and
waited, had reasoned and argued, until it
almost seemed that he had lost all power
of continuous thought, so distracted had
he become; and now, since they had been
separated, he had weighed the evidence
again and again; had never ceased laboriously to revolve the matter in his mind;
to seek to comprehend her motives and to
test his own. He could not have made a
mistake. It was true that she had never
confessed anything, but again she had
never denied anything, merely contenting
herself with an indignant silence, or with
impetuous assertion that she disdained to
defend herself against suspicion, adding
that if he did not trust her he did not love
her, and that they had best part.
And so he, unable to control the fierce
jealousy, the rugged wrong-side of his
strong love, and she feigning or feeling
the deep indignation of affronted womanhood, had given to the wind the vows
they had both made, that they would
thereafter cling to one another, even until
the last great parting. No, he must have
been right - there was so much to justify
him. Though he had imagined her so
different from other women, was there
really any reason why she should be so?
There was her own sister - beautiful,
headstrong, erring Ethel - and might not
Mabel really have been - was it not indeed reasonable to believe, that she was
as vain, as frivolous, as light as the other?
Was it not highly probable that as one
sister had been, so the other should be?
And yet at first he had felt that she was
of another nature than this willful being
who had fled from the tedium of a life in
which there was only peace and sufficiency, to seek the excitement and lavishness that she seemed to crave - had fled
from the small but pretty house, on the
city's outskirts, where Mabel had seemed
so contented, and where during the long,
lustrous summer evenings he had timidly
courted her; where, on the brisk, brilliant
December night, three years ago, he had
finally married her.
It was about her sister, Ethel, that they
had had their first quarrel - he peremptorily refusing ever to let his wife see or
communicate with one whom he had
thought so unworthy of her love and
countenance, and she, only after argument and contention, finally yielding. It
had always been disagreeable to him to
think of Ethel as his wife's sister. It was
with real relief that, in the first year of
their marriage, he had listened to Mabel
as she told him that she had received
news of Ethel's death in one of the hospitals of an Eastern city, and reflected
that this being, whose life was so worthless to herself and others, could no longer
come between them.
Yes, Mabel had always been light-hearted and pleasure-loving. But granting only this, was not
that enough to cause difficulty in time?
Was he the man - middle-aged, serious,
and a trifle taciturn - to satisfy such a woman; pretty, with the desire, and even the
right to have her beauty recognized;
naturally longing for the enjoyment that youth demands as its peculiar prerogative?
Was it not only natural that she should
fancy some one nearer her own age, some
one with a readier wit, and more
adaptable manner? He was as conscious of
his own shortcomings as he was of his inability to overcome them; but he nevertheless suffered grievously, and had been
continually on the lookout for some sign
of disapproval, of dislike, on her part. It
is true it never came, but he was always
apprehensive; it was the seed-time for
suspicion, and the soil in which the grain
might come to deadly fruit was morbidly
rich, It was only to be expected that he
should hearken to what people said.
When he had received the first anonymous letter he had sworn that he would
not read the thing; but when, with trembling hand and quick-beating heart, he
had first glanced along the cowardly,
feigned writing - as he deliberately read
it again, as he had read all that succeeded
it, he had in his heart believed what was
said. Had she not acted strangely for a
long time, as if she were keeping something from him? All seemed calculated
to strengthen him in his apprehensions,
all to bear witness against her. And
when he had shown her the letters, with
their blackening tale, though she had appeared indignant, outraged, even then
she had denied nothing, and had refused
to defend, to exculpate herself. It had
been a brief but violent scene, and then
they - she proudly, and he besottedly
jealous and passionately inflexible - had
It was a common enough story, as he
knew, but in spite of this knowledge it
seemed strangely pathetic to him. And
that had been the end of the life that had begun so happily, but it had not been the
end of torturing thoughts, of eternal questionings, of occasional self-crimination.
Now, with a sense almost of relief, he reflected that the time of doubt was past
for him. Since he had heard Spurlock's
confession he need torment himself no
more. He had been right. Her fancy
had been taken by the good looks and
careless grace of the stranger, and she
had forgotten his love, lost her love - if
there had really ever been any - for him.
It did not require any great time for
these thoughts to arise, to eddy giddily
about, to crowd one another in Irby's
mind. And yet - he was thinking more
calmly and collectedly now - it was
strange that he should have felt so deeply
about it all, at this late day, as to have
been moved to kill this man. And then
be reflected how wonderful it was that
the poor creature whom in pity he bad
befriended and rescued, should have been the man who had robbed him of his
happiness. The injustice - what seemed
to him almost the ingratitude of it -
struck him with sudden force, and he
glanced with quick-kindling hatred at the
motionless something in the corner.
And all the while the engine sped on,
thundering over bridges, and roaring
through "cuttings," a terrible, it might
almost seem in its awful momentum, an
unmanageable force - sped on, pouring a
dense cloud of smoke from its swaying
stack, and flinging into the air myriads
of glowing, dancing sparks that streamed
behind in a cometic trail!
Now another city lies not far ahead,
as Irby well knows. Shall he tell what
has happened and give himself up? Uncertain what to do, he determines to do
nothing. The stop he knows will he but
short. At so late an hour there will be
but few about; none at all who will
think of mounting on the engine. The
cab is so high from the ground that no
one passing on the platform of the station
can see into it. Why not go as he had
come, without allowing a person to know
what had occurred; then, in the long unbroken run to the next stopping place,
he would have time to reflect - decide
upon his ultimate course.
Crouching over the lever he brought
the engine up to the building that gave
shelter to the travellers, and stopped it,
trembling before the lighted windows.
The sudden illumination disconcerted him
somewhat and he turned to adjust the
tattered, greasy curtain more carefully.
His change of position had brought the
body within his gaze, and he looked at it
now for the first time coolly and curiously. Blood stood in almost inky black
spots on the white face - the distended
arms lay along the floor in flaccid, impotent immobility. Had it not been cowardly to take the man unawares; should
he not have given Spurlock a chance to
defend himself? He thought vaguely
that if the deed were to he done over
again he would prefer not to do it in that
The voice seemed almost at his elbow,
and he gave a great start. But it was
only one of the station people, whom he
knew, hurrying by on the platform below
He was afraid that if he did not answer
the man might return, and so he shouted the cheery, conventional greeting after
him in a voice that he did not seem to
recognize as his own.
The time the train could remain at
this place was nearly up, and he glanced
at his clock to see if even then he might
not set the engine in motion. The hands
stood exactly at twelve, folded together
in a manner that suggested palms closely pressed in prayer; and now, as he sat
waiting for the moment when he might
be off, the chimes rang out from a church
near at hand. In the clear night air they
sounded merrily, and it seemed to him
that he had never heard sounds so sweet,
so holy. He knew what it meant, they
were ringing for the midnight service of
Christmas. Had he not gone once, with
her, and as the memory came back to
him - it seemed almost brought to him by
the wind-borne cadences of the bells - he
bowed his head on his hand that rested
on the cold, hard handle of the steel
beam, and a sob broke from him and left
him trembling and afraid. He thought
of the momentous event in remembrance
of which the bells were ringing - the birth
of the Child that was born into the world
to bring the message of hope and of salvation; to teach that lesson of gentleness
and peace that the world had never known
before - that it has only so imperfectly
learned. "Peace on earth and good-will
toward men." He turned again and
glanced at the upward staring face in the
corner. The contrast between word and
fact was so terrible, so complete, that
its realization overcame him, and in his
sudden agony he again sobbed aloud.
On flew the train. The flat, open country was crossed, and its way now lay
among high hills that soon would become
mountains. Irby felt that there was something threatening in their ragged outline
and wished himself back again in the level land. Then he tried to dismiss such
senseless, such insane ideas from his mind
and sought to reason, and to resolve, but
found he could do neither. Was he becoming mad, or had he been mad all the
time? It was a new thought, and he pondered over it diligently.
He seemed to hear a noise as if someone were moving, and glanced around.
Spurlock stirred uneasily, raised himself
slowly on his elbow, then, in an instant,
was on his feet. It was evident that complete intelligence had returned with renewed physical strength, his still vigorous
youth making sudden recovery possible.
He threw himself instantly into a position
of defense, as if his last conscious thought
was still in his mind, or was the first to return to it.
"Dan," he cried, "what's the matter?
Have you gone mad?"
But Irby did not answer. The knowledge
that, after all, he had not killed his companion filled him for an instant with strange
relief; then the old fierce hate returned,
and he looked at the other threateningly.
"What is it, Dan?" said Spurlock,
entreatingly; "can't you tell me?"
Still Irby did not speak.
"Can't you say something?" continued Spurlock.
"No," answered Irby. "I'm not crazy,
whatever you may think - although perhaps I ought to be."
"Then what is it?"
"You were telling me a story."
"Do you remember there was - a - woman in it?"
"She," said Irby, calmly enough, "was
"It isn't true, Dan, it can't be true,"
almost shrieked Spurlock, raising his
voice high above the roar of the train.
"It was true," answered Irby.
"But, Dan," implored Spurlock, "I
never knew, I never could have suspected.
She had another name."
"Shaw was my name then, is my real
"But I swear to you, swear to you as
I hope for salvation on the day of judgment, that there was nothing."
"I know," said Irby, slowly, "and I
believe you. But you said that she told
you that she loved you. You confessed
that yourself, and isn't that enough?"
"And what are you going to do?"
"What I started to do," answered Irby.
"No, Dan," cried Spurlock, "don't say
that, don't do that. If I've done you a
wrong, I didn't mean it, and -"
"I don't pretend," answered Irby, sullenly, "that I can see the thing clear. I
only know what I have felt, and what I
feel. There may not be any justice in it,
but justice is for them who can think, and
I can't. I only know that you're the man
that came between us; that I tried to find
then, and that I've found at last."
"And you're going to kill me?" asked
Spurlock, now with entire calmness; "is
that what you mean?"
"Yes," said Irby.
"Then I tell you what it is," continued
Spurlock, with perfect coolness, though
with a certain quickness of utterance. "I
haven't done anything to you, knowingly,
and if you try that again I'm going to defend myself. You know I'm not afraid,
and that I'll make a good fight."
"All the better," said Irby, grimly,
"I'll feel it the less after it's over,"
"But look here," Spurlock went on,
"do you propose that we settle this here,
"Yes," answered Irby.
"Then I'd like to say something." said
Spurlock, seating himself, but watching
his companion carefully. "We're both
strong men. I'm as likely to do you an
injury as you me. We might both meet
with an accident, and then what would
become of the train?"
Irby did not answer. After what had
passed, this calm parleying with life and
death did not strike him as in the least
unnatural. Whether or not he should
kill Spurlock then and there, or wait until later, seemed to him a matter that
might be talked over quite calmly and
"It's our duty," said Spurlock, "to
look out for the train, whatever we may
Irby thought of the scores of sleeping passengers, and
hesitated. What Spurlock said was true.
A struggle between them in such confined quarters
would indeed be something determined and dangerous; and
though he had no doubt as to
its outcome, still Spurlock could
very easily do him an injury that
would incapacitate him, "I think you're right," he answered, briefly, and then he again
sat down, for he had risen when he
had first spoken; "there's more coal needed, put
Spurlock threw open the furnace-door again allowing the
ruddy glow to play over the place, cast half-a-dozen shovelfuls of coal on
the embers, fanned by the draft to almost a white heat, then closed the
heavy iron shutter, and took his place opposite Irby.
Mile on mile they rode in silence,
hardly looking at each other. The lights
were all out now in the houses along the
road. the landscape unbroken by a gleam
anywhere. It was like travelling through
some lately deserted land.
Dan," said Spurlock at length, "I
don't speak because I want you to let up
on me, but you know you're the last man
in the world I'd harm."
"I know it," answered Irby, shortly.
Then again there was silence, lasting
for minutes and miles.
"If there's no way out of this," said
Spurlock, once more speaking, " I'd
like, Dan, to understand it a little better.
I want to know what I've done to you."
Should he answer him, Irby thought.
He knew that he could not give expression to the least part of what he had
known and suffered, but the instinct that
makes even the bravest sometimes cry
out when they are hurt forbade silence.
"It was you that spoiled the only happiness that I ever had," he said, relentlessly; "it was you that destroyed my
confidence in her."
It appeared incomprehensible that he
could sit there so calmly discussing his
own misery with the man who had been
the cause of it, tossing reasons back and
across, as if it were the most ordinary subject. But so much had happened to him
that he had not thought possible that the
position only caused him momentary surprise.
"Yes," said Spurlock. "But I didn't
know - I couldn't look ahead."
"But you must have understood that
harm was bound to come somewhere - to
"A man doesn't stop to think," answered Spurlock, "at such a time."
"Someone was bound to suffer," said
"Well," exclaimed Spurlock, bitterly,
"I think we've all done that - all."
"I thought it was bad enough when I
lost the child," continued Irby, disregarding the other's speech, "but to lose her!
A man don't marry a woman unless he
has trust in her, - and to such as I, who
have never had a chance to believe much
of anything, it's about the only faith that's
given to them. When you take away
such belief you're robbing him of everything in this world and the next, for some
woman's all the religion many a man's
got. She can make him believe that
something's right, and that right's something, and when you find out that she has
been deceiving you, there don't seem be anything anywhere. She's not only
been a worse woman, but, Spurlock, I've
been a worse man since then."
His first hesitancy was past now, and he
was talking unconstrainedly, almost argumentatively.
"I suppose, Dan," Spurlock hastened
to speak, "its only natural that you
should feel the way you do; I suppose
I'd do the same in your place; but let's
try and be reasonable. I grant that you've
got grounds of complaint against me, and
I'm willing to give you the satisfaction
you want. That's only square. But,
Dan, we've been friends so long, mates
on the engine for some considerable time
now, and it isn't as if I'd been a stranger,
and you'd learned this thing."
"No," assented Irby.
"If I should give you revenge, I owe
you gratitude, and whatever comes I'm
not going to forget that."
Another city was near as they both
well knew, a city where a longer stay
would be made than at any place since a
they had started on the long ride.
"In ten minutes we'll be in the
depot," said Spurlock, "what's to happen
"Nothing," answered Irby, after a
"We'll take the train through?"
"Yes, we'll take the train through,"
The track, after passing the station,
ran directly over a great bridge that
spanned a broad river, and the train, with carefully diminished speed, almost
crawled along, high over the rushing stream
that beat with such strong current against
the massive piers. It was still perfectly
dark, and the two men felt, rather than
saw, the black waters rolling beneath
them. Slowly, it would seem for the first
time almost timidly, the engine rolled on,
but soon the measured clang - the
almost rhythmic reverberation of the iron girders, as the wheels ground over them
- ceased suddenly; was succeeded by a
more confused and unbroken din, and
wheeling around a bend in the shore,
the locomotive took up a swifter pace,
and soon the lights glittering along the
wharves, and the gas-lamps shining in
rows up and down the steep streets, were
lost from sight.
It was a straight "run in" now for the
metropolis, unbroken by another halt.
For a time the landscape was obscured
by the flying flakes, for the train had run
into a snow-squall and the air was full of
whirling, downy particles. Finally the
storm passed, or the train passed it,
and as the engine tore on, the two men
saw that the ground beside the track,
lit by the dancing light of the cab windows, was unbrokenly white. The train
frequently raced by small way stations,
for the country along the river was more
thickly settled than any through which
it had passed; but they were all dark, or
with only a signal-light at some switch,
and so the time passed - the train grinding swiftly on. At length, at one place
larger than the rest, there shot up into
the darkness strange, lambent flames that
caught and held, though it was no strange
sight to them, the gaze of both the men.
Nearer, it was easy to see that they rose
from the great chimneys of an iron mill -
that like huge stationary torches lit up
all around. Of vivid green when they
sprang from the chimney's mouths they
twisted away in strange orange convolutions - fantastic and fascinating. Now
the windows of the wide-spreading buildings, row after row, came into view; and
now, through an opening, could be seen
the glowing interior, with glimpses of
dark, diabolic forms, and of brilliant
masses of heated metal that either flowed
in slow, fiery stream, or cast oft; beneath
the blows of ponderous hammers, bewildering showers of sparks. But, like all
else, this was speedily left behind.
"Dan," said Spurlock, finally, "there's
one thing I wish you'd do."
"What?" asked Irby.
"Shake hands with me for the time
that's past - when we didn't know."
Irby hesitated a moment, then held
out his hand to his companion; Spurlock
seized and shook it silently.
"We'll be in the city in a little more
than an hour, now," continued Spurlock,
"and I thought we'd better settle up
everything and then start fresh."
"They gave me a letter for you just as
we were leaving, that had been waiting
for you at the office," Spurlock went on;
but the hurry of starting drove it out of
my head, and," Spurlock smiled grimly,
"you knocked it out"
He drew a letter from his coat and
handed it to Irby.
The day had just broken and the first
tinges of anything like color appeared in
the sky. It was still dark, but the shape
of the great, swelling headlands across
the broad river that flowed along unfrozen, and with swollen flood, could now
with difficulty be distinguished. It was
light enough, however, for Irby to read
the direction on the envelope, and as he
did so his face, already so pale, became a
duller white and he slightly trembled.
Then he hastily tore open the letter,
and read in the dim but strengthening
I do not know why I write to you at this time unless it is for the
very reason that it is this time. The day that is so near is so closely
connected with so much that was most important to me, and must be so to
you - that is if you ever think of me and the past at all - that I have
ventured to do it. I know that you have done all in your power to make
it impossible for me to reach you - all uselessly heretofore - for even
if I had been able to approach you I would not have done so. I was very
proud, and you hurt me very much. But I am changed now; suffering has
made the girl, intolerant in her ignorance, a woman who can understand
and who can condone. I have changed, and the consciousness of that fact
has made me think that you may have changed too, and that perhaps all
may be different. We have made a mistake, Dan, I as well as you, and now
I know it. I should not have been so resentful of your suspicions; you
should not have been so angered by my resentment. You were older than I,
and you should have been more patient. But I am not writing these lines
to show you wherein you have failed, but rather to acknowledge my own
errors. For, Dan, I did you a wrong, though not in the way you accused
me of doing it. I did deceive you, but it was not in the way you
thought. I deceived you once, but even then I did not tell you a lie. I
only let you go on thinking something that was not true. Ethel died last
night, here, with me by her bedside. It was not true the news that came
to us from that Eastern hospital; she was very ill, but she recovered,
and one day, more than a year and a half ago, she came to me, when we
were living in Arapago, and begged me to be kind to her. I remembered
what you had told me, and - recollected that you are a stern man -
sometimes almost hard - that you have been hard even with me, though you
never meant it - and I was afraid if I let you know that you would not
allow me to see her. And poor Ethel, if anyone needed help in this
world, such help as sympathy alone can give, it was she. She was never
really bad, only weak - fearfully, fatally weak - and though God knows
that I needed strength - that was one of the reasons I loved you, Dan,
you made me feel so secure of myself - I could aid her. Under the name
of Agnes Holcombe, the name she had taken when she left her home, she
lived in the city, supporting herself with some little assistance from
me. She could only come to the house - I could only see her, when you
were away. Perhaps you will understand now what it was I was keeping
from you. I felt that I must see her, if she was to be saved. I was the
only influence for good that there was near her - I alone had power to
control her, and I did see her and kept the knowledge of it from you.
There was a young man who was in love with her - I did not know that for
some time, she did not tell me, and though I did what I could, she
insisted upon seeing him, slipping out to meet him, even in the garden
beside the house. Poor girl, it seemed as if she craved love more than
most of us, and that it was her very need for affection that always
brought her trouble.
I did not think that I would ever seek
to justify myself. At the time of our
trouble I felt too deeply your unworthy
doubts; the very fact that I loved you so
much made the wound deeper, and I imagined then that I never would forget;
but time does so much, and as the day
has once more come around that has
meant so much to us, is so nearly here, I
have seen things differently - and I have
wanted you to hear the truth, I do not
know what effect it will have upon you,
but at least there will no longer be any
misunderstanding, and whatever the future may be for us, it will not be the result of a mistake.
I am - no I have some pride left and
I will not tell you where I am - but if
you really wish to see me you can find
me. The postmark on the letter will give
you a clue, But, Dan, if you are coming,
do not wait long. I cannot bear
suspense. If you are coming, come at once,
and make this for me, what I could not
expect and perhaps do not deserve, indeed
a merry Christmas and a happy New
As Irby finished reading the letter the sun
started up from behind a not distant hill
and flung its light full into the engine windows;
then its brilliant rays spread across
the small sparkling waves of the grandly
rolling river, and fell on the opposite shore - turning the snow-covered hills
a warm and delicate pink. The smoke,
rising from the many chimneys of a
village through which the train dashed, mounted
slowly and almost in unswerving lines
in the still air, while the unshuttered windows
cast back the new radiance of the
morning, flash on flash. It seemed a new
world, and to Irby it was one. Silently
he handed the paper he had just read
to Spurlock, - who took it wonderingly, - and again his head sank upon his
left hand, which hardly for more than an
instant had left the bar that controlled the
© RailroadStories, 2002.