"The Conductor's Story." Hearth and Home, 2 Dec. 1871, pp. 946-47.
THE CONDUCTOR’S STORY
BY REBECCA HARDING DAVIS
Good arable? Yes, sir; and if you look at it in the way of scenery, it’s as pretty a bit of land as you’ll find in Kent county. That stretch now ahead. By the way, there was a queer thing happened on the track just three years ago come Thanksgiving—as queer as ever came in my way since I’ve been railroading. It occurred in this way: I’ll have time to tell it, I reckon. We have to switch off for the express at the next station and lay by awhile.
This branch road, you see, was built for the local peach business. I was put on as a conductor of the first train that was run. By George! How the engine woke the country up! The Delawareans are genuine Southerners—lazy and hospitable. They were hospitable to the very train, in a way commercial people can’t understand. It wasn’t a matter of business; it was a home affair to them, like their church or their darkies; something to chuckle and gossip over and boast about. The stations used to be crowded with young fellows in flashy neckties, and their sweethearts, nice modest little girls, loaded with cheap finery, who had made up parties and come down from the interior to see the train go by. Every old farmer on the route thought he owned the engine (the General Jackson it was), and knew each separate car as well as he did his own bulls and sheep. They’d treat their wives to a few miles’ ride, as you town people would run over to Europe with yours.
Of course, sir, I was at home here on the road in two weeks. Everybody called me Dick. There were scores of places where I could drop in for an odd meal. I began to doubt whether they were my uncles and cousins or not. Besides, a man here, after fifty, has no other business but loafing. All the old fellows got free passes over the road and forsook their corners by the tavern fire for the baggage-car. There they smoked, day after day, and told queer stories of their neighbors’ families for the benefit of anybody that chose to listen. I knew all the gossip by heart directly. It was just when the peaches were in bloom, too, when I went on the road, and I soon was punching open buds with my thumb-nail, and talking learnedly of Early Blush and Morris Whites with the rest. It’s a curious sight to see that pink flush, above the early spring mud from one end of the state to the other, and to think that crop is one matter of life and death to the people.
The peaches come and gone, though, when one day, about a month before Thanksgiving, an old fellow came on board with his family, who had a pass for two down to St. George’s. I saw at a glance that he was none of my usual deadhead squad. A thing, wiry old man, white-headed, but active as a boy of sixteen, and with the true Delewarean knack of finding friends and showing himself friendly. He was a reporter on some Philadelphia penny-paper, and had his note-book out every minute, pumping me about the Wilmington whipping-post, Sloan’s fish-breeding experiment, and the condition of the freed negroes.
“Makes items, makes items!” he said “Pushes the paper wonderfully into local circulation.”
He had been a doctor, or lawyer, I forget which, in New York and was starved out, he told me, so took up journalizing. He did not impress me as a man of ability; and besides, the poor fellow was worn out. It was high time for him to lie by and loaf with the others in the baggage car.
“Newspaper work,” he said, “pays handsomely, compared to my own profession. We get on quite comfortably on my salary quite comfortably.”
I noticed, however that both he and his women folks were thinly and shabbily dressed. I did not pay much attention to the women, but there was a boy, Dan, the old man’s grandson—a little chap of four that I took an odd fancy to from the first. He had an ugly face, but I think one of the most honest and lovable I ever saw.
Tanner—that was the old man’s name—told me that he had brought his wife and daughter down to keep thanksgiving in this village, where they had lived years before.—“We were all younger and cheerfuller then than now,” he said, “and I thought, maybe, with the old place, would come back some of the old feeling. There are other ways of keeping the fests than with stuffing the stomach you know,”
I thought to myself it would be as well if the stomach had its share of rejoicing. Tanner, cheerful and chirrupy as he was, looked meager and hunger-bitten. Four people could not grow fat on eight dollars a week, which I found was his salary. He hired a vacant house for a month. There it is—that one behind the hill. The family went to house-keeping in some sort of way in it, and he used to run down Friday evenings to stay with them our Saturdays, which is the newspaper men’s Sunday, as you know. We grew to be very friendly. I fell in the habit of watching with them for Dan, who always came out on the porch to wait for him, his mother holding him by the hand. I used to wonder if the poor little widow ever let go her hold of the child day or night, and once I remember thinking what she would do if the child should die. One has those queer, idle fancies, you know. But Dan’s mother was one of those women who seem to have no life outside of the one or two people they love.
Well, Thanksgiving even came, and Tanner was aboard going home, but I had no time to talk to him, as the train was crowded with people who had been up on Wilmington laying in supplies for the holiday. Even the passenger cars were heaped with baskets and bundles. Tanner had his little package, too—something for Dan. I saw him peering in with his eyes twinkling once or twice. I remember how pleased he was when I brought him a monster turkey for Mrs. Tanner. The old lady, although she had only seen me on the train as it whisked by, had taken an anxious interest in a sore throat I had and sent me a bottle of myrrh-tea by the old gentleman.
I don’t know whether it was because I had come from a part of the country where they don’t keep Thanksgiving, or because of the horror that followed, but I remember that afternoon as one of the brightest and cheerfulest of my life. The air was cold and crisp. There was a red mist over the hills; in the cars and the stations there was nothing but good humor and friendly good wishes. I don’t think much of serious things, yet it seemed to me that day that the people came with one accord nearer to God because of Thanksgiving. One old gentleman on board had the same idea, I suppose; for, as I sat down behind him to count my change, I saw him watching the passengers and houses we passed with an amused smile, and turning to his companion, he said:
“There’s something very wholesome in the effect of these holidays, Colonel. They awaken men to a sense of dependence and gratitude, as a year’s sermon cannot do.”
The other was so long in replying that I looked up at him.
“When a man has a home or home ties to give thanks for, the holiday is useful, doubt.”
It was so queer and cold an answer that I felt curiosity about the man. He went back to his newspaper (which was and English one, I noticed,) and began to talk immediately about the duties on silks and linens.—I soon found that he was largely interested in both; had traveled over a good part of the world, traded in China and Japan, and as I guessed, successfully. He had the air of a man accustomed to command, and to a life of ease. He was a middle-aged, stoutly-built man, with a clean shaved, powerful face, and shrewd, pleasant eyes. I noticed that, through all his conversation he tried to avoid seeing the happy groups of people who were incessantly getting on or off the train; and once, when a child in passing pulled at his cane, he turned his back roughly on it. Yet I had a fancy—I don’t know why—that the people and Thanksgiving mattered more to him than any of us.
His friend said to him presently, “You’re not well, Colonel?” “Never was better. But the truth is Venn, this country is all familiar to me, and anything which recalls old times makes me nervous and irritable. It’s a weakness which I will outgrow probably. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go forward,” He saw me just then, and touching his hat, asked leave to ride on the engine, in order to see the scenery.
Now the rules of the road were slip-shod enough, but that was a thing I had never allowed. However, I had taken a curious interest in the man, and I liked his courteous manner, so I nodded and went on before him through the baggage car and over the tender to see him safely across. To my surprise, Joe Fenton, our engineer, met him as an old acquaintance. Joe had been a private in his regiment during the war. They shook hands again and again, and Fenton was in such a hurry to tell that he was married and the father of twins, that he stammered. The colonel laughed, and looked as pleased as Joe.—He was a different man from the one I had seen in the car. I waited a moment to point out Brock’s model farm to him, when Joe said:
“You used to come down to these parts for fishing, often, I remember colonel!”
“Where is your good lady now, sir? And the child. He was a pert a youngster as I ever knowed.”
The gentleman replied but by a gesture with his hand.
“What, both?” gasped Joe. “Both?”
The Colonel did not speak for a minute, and then he said quietly: “My wife was with me in China. She sailed with the child for home on the Petrel. I was to follow six months later. The Petrel went down. There was no one saved.”
Joe said nothing; but presently he put out his hand and smoothed the other man’s sleeve. It was just such a thing as a woman would do.
The Colonel added hastily, as if afraid he would betray any emotion, “I’m on my way West now, in search of my father, who has left New England. People are easily lost sight of in America.”
“That’s a fact, sir,” said Joe, and then he and I began to talk about the engine, glad to get back to her. We had no right to meddle with a grief like that.
I went back on the cars again, until we came to that hill a half-mile beyond Tanner’s house, when I stepped back to the engine. I had an uneasy feeling somehow about leaving the man there. We had lost time, and were going at full speed, when Joe gave a terrible oath, and at the same moment something fluttered down on to the bank, not twenty yards ahead. The next, I saw that it was a child, that it was Dan, laughing and running, with both hands out, to meet us.—You know, sir, how long a minute like that lasts. I had time to hear Joe’s mad whistle for down breaks shrieking out through the hills, and to thank God that Tanner was in the back of the train, and could not see what we would have to see, and yet it was all but a breath of time.
It was too late. The engine did not slacken, and the child was hurrying toward it.—Then I saw his mother above the bank, running down the filed. She had missed Dan and would be in sight before—
I remember Joe’s lips were white. Yet he said, as cool as could be, “It would be death. I reckon; but—if a man could swing himself down from the cow-catcher.—”
I pushed forward, but the colonel held me back.
“I’ve nothing to lose,” he said, and as swift as a cat he passed round the ledge and threw himself headlong down on the track in front. I shut my eyes. The engine and the whole train thundered on, slackened at last, and stopped. I remember how slowly I climbed down and I looked over to a field. I did not know what I would tread into on the track or see.
The people poured out of the train. In the track lay the colonel like one dead—clear of the track, sir. He held the child alive and unhurt, still clutched in both hands. He was only stunned, and came to in a minute, and stood up; but he did not seem to see the train or the crowd of men about him; nothing but the boy, over whose face he was passing his hand.
“God Almighty!” he cried. “It’s my Dan!”
Then I saw the child’s mother down on the ground with both arms about her husband’s knees, and poor old Tanner, pale as a ghost, pulling at his sleeve, crying “Jack! Jack!”
I saw how it was in a flash, and motioned to Joe to whistle warning, and shouted. “All aboard, gentlemen. Ten minutes late!”—Though I’d have given the world just to wring the old man’s hand. It was no rejoicing for us to take part in.
Though I’ve got no better friends than the colonel and his father, Joe and I go there by invitation as often as Thanksgiving comes round. No one ever speaks of that day, but it is never out of remembrance. Yonder is their house—stone—beyond the bridge.—Want to see Joe, eh! He’s on the engine, sir. Passengers not allowed on the engine.
St. George’s! Tickets!
 Land that is suitable for farming.