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"As the Sparks Fly Upward"

by George A. Hibbard

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 the reverse-lever.

"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 of swamp-lands, along the ground, now appearing and now disappearing.

"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 cab window.

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 night.

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 unsuspected strength.

"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 attested.

"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 from memory.

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 me.

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 looking.

"Give me something to do," he had said.

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 doubtfully.

"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 bill.

"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 spoke.

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 speech.

"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 snatched away.

"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 of me,"

"Women," said Irby, slowly, "do a deal of good when they don't - do a deal of harm."

She could have been the making of me. But circumstances -"

"How long ago was it?" interrupted Irby.

"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 desert.

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 asked.

No," said Spurlock. "Though there's but little to tell I might as well tell you that little. It all happened out at Arapago."

"Arapago?" repeated Irby, glancing sharply around.

"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 her.

"Well," said Irby, impatiently, and yet hesitatingly.

"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 place."

"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, Dan?"

"Nothing," answered Irby; "go on."

"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 separated.

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 way.

"Merry Christmas!"

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 him.

"Merry Christmas!"

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."

"Yes."

"Do you remember there was - a - woman in it?"

"Yes."

"She," said Irby, calmly enough, "was my wife."

"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 name now."

"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, and now?"

"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 collectedly.

"It's our duty," said Spurlock, "to look out for the train, whatever we may feel ourselves."

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 it on."

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 someone.

"A man doesn't stop to think," answered Spurlock, "at such a time."

"Someone was bound to suffer," said Irby.

"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 then?"

"Nothing," answered Irby, after a moment's consideration.

"We'll take the train through?"

"Yes, we'll take the train through," answered Irby.

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."

Irby nodded.

"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 light:

DAN, DEAR:

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 Year,

MABEL.

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 onrushing engine.

RailroadStories, 2002.

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