By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 9, 1937.
“I haven’t been on a train,” said Jimmie Frise, “for I don’t know how long.”
We were on one now.
“They’ve certainly made some changes,” I remarked. “Look at the color of this car.”
It was a parlor car and it was all done in maroon.
“I wonder,” said Jim, “they haven’t made more changes, after all. The competition of motor cars and buses ought to have done more than just a little upholstery.”
“This car is air-conditioned,” I pointed out. “A few years ago, even when you travelled in a parlor car for eighty cents extra, you still got cinders through the screens, and it still smelt of cigar butts from up at the smoking end.”
“It certainly is nice,” admitted Jim, leaning back in the luxurious revolving easy chair and looking out the wide observation window at the beautiful country wheeling by.
“It’s better riding,” I commented. “Feel how sort of nice and smooth and springy it is.”
“Modern, too,” said Jim, waving his hand at the pretty light fixtures, the handsome carpet, the architecture in general of this fast travelling living room.
“Wait till to-night,” I said. “Wait till we get into the sleeping car at Montreal. Then you’ll see something. We ride sideways.”
“Sideways?” said Jim.
“Yes, sir, we sleep sideways,” I explained. “It’s called a bedroom car. Instead of the old sleeping car, with berths and green curtains and feet sticking out and funny smells, we sleep in a car full of little sideways bedrooms. The corridor is along one side of the car and off that corridor are a lot of tiny bedrooms, with a bed, a wash basin, table, chair, nice soft table lamps. A regular dear little apartment bedroom. And instead of sleeping end for end, with your feet or head going first, you sleep crossways of the way you are travelling.”
“I don’t know how I will like that,” said Jim. “Every time the train stops or starts, I’ll be rolled out of bed.”
“They’ve got special engine drivers,” I suggested. “Specially trained to start and stop easy. You’re going to like it.”
“I saw a movie once,” said Jim, “in which there was a scene on a train where they had a sort of movie theatre on board, and a dance floor and a bar. It was just like a travelling hotel.”
“They have those in the United States,” I informed him. “We’ll get them in Canada in due time. With automobile trailers coming along the way they are, the railroads are sure to follow. Pretty soon there will really be hotels on wheels. Lots of people will just live in travelling hotels on the railroads. After all, why live your life in one place?”
Smoking Car Big Shots
“No, sir,” I predicted. “In a few years, our rich won’t have to be put to the inconvenience of stopping in this place and that, being bored to death all the time. They can simply take an apartment in a super-modern railway coach, and travel all the time, keeping constantly in motion, seeing fresh scenes not every month but every minute. Now that’s what I call living.”
“You’re right,” said Jim, leaning back heavily, like a banker or a president of something. “One lives rather dowdily, does one not, on the whole?”
“One does,” I agreed, also settling back in my deep ball-bearing, maroon lounge chair.
And so we sat, comfortably racing through the beautiful Canadian countryside. How much nicer it is in winter than summer, from a railway car window. When you are driving a car in the winter you are so busy watching the snow and ice ruts, you can’t look at the country. But in its white robe, with its dark trees, its scattered woods patterned far and near, its little farm homes not nearly so colorless against the white as against the green of summer, the winter view from a railway coach has a curious spell about it.
For a long while, we lounged, listening to the dull giddley-bump of the rails, looking at our fellow passengers and wondering who they were. Then we got up and went into the handsome smoking room of the parlor car. In the deep leather chairs were sitting a number of large fat dark men smoking cigars, with their eyes half shut and their minds partly open. And in loud, nasal voices, they were making speeches to one another and the car at large. They were talking about things they knew about. The King and business and Mackenzie King and Spain, politics and Bill this and Herb that, from which, in time, as we listened, we learned they were talking about prominent Canadian millionaires and such.
After quite a long time listening to the two or three talkingest ones, Jim and I tried a little private converse, but the others raised their voices and sat forward with fat hands resting on fat knees, and drowned us down.
So after a cigarette or two, Jim and I went back to our chairs in the car.
“That’s one thing hasn’t changed on trains,” I remarked. “The smoking car big shots.”
I started to read several things, but either something out the window would loom and distract me, or somebody would walk through the car and I’d have to take a look, or else somebody three seats down would suddenly start talking to his wife in a ringing voice for a half minute and then suddenly quit, leaving me with a wondering fragment in my mind….
I looked at Jimmie. He was snoozing. So I snoozed.
There is no nicer place on earth to snooze than in a parlor car chair. The murmuring giddley-bump of the wheels, the deep slumbrous hum, the gentle jiggling, all induce slumber. Yet there is just enough to keep you from going deep. The click of switches as you cross them. The varying sounds and silences as the train slows and stops and starts. Thus you hang suspended between sleeping and awake. A sort of lovely, lingering twilight.
Always the Human Factor
I woke wide. Jim was sitting gazing at me out of half open eyes.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Kingston, I think,” said Jim, sitting up and yawning.
“Kingston,” I cried. “And here I’ve been sleeping all this pleasant journey away.”
Two or three of our neighbors in the car woke heavily and stared balefully at us for waking them with our talk. Their eyes were heavy and contemptuous. They revolved their chairs around to turn their backs on us. They resettled themselves in deeper, more comfortable attitudes for slumber.
“What’s the use,” I asked Jim, leaning close, “of modernizing the railways if all we do with them is to lie in old-fashioned sleep?”
“It’s always been the way,” said Jim. “Everybody sleeps on trains.”
“Then what’s the use of dolling trains all up and fitting them with every modern convenience, if we are too sleepy to notice the improvements?” I demanded.
“Look at them,” sneered Jimmie, staring along the parlor car. “Look at that woman with her mouth open. Look at that old guy there with his lip pushed out.”
“See?” I said. “It’s always the human factor that is amiss. What can you do about life, if the people aren’t alive?”
“You’re right,” agreed Jim. “It’s the people we’ve got to work on, not the fixtures or the upholstery or the rolling stock. Yet what can you do about it? Life, after all, look at it with common sense, life is pretty dull. For the vast majority of us, life has no more surprises.”
The train slowed again, somewhere east of Kingston, came to a stop, and as we looked out the window, we saw the platform, with the usual scattering of people standing gazing, with open mouth, at our train. There were funny-looking men in ear flap caps too big for them, and a drop on the end of their noses. Ladies staring intently at the wonder of us. Strangers, strange, beautiful, passing through their little town, going places, doing things.
Two middle-aged ladies came walking slowly along the platform, arm in arm and huddled close together as they walked, deep in talk. They leaned their heads together to chat in each other’s ears.
As they passed, they both glanced up, to see Jim and me staring out the window at them. Now, amongst ladies of this age, they have a saying which goes something like this: “I just gave him a look!
These two ladies did give us a look. A kind of perky, prim, indignant flick of the eyes.
But I beat them. I made a face at them.
I screwed up my nose and stuck my tongue out at them.
The effect was electrical.
“What on earth?” cried Jim, leaning to watch the two startled ladies dash along the platform.
“What did you do?” demanded Jim, looking at me.
“I made a face at them,” I confessed. “I did this.”
I showed Jim.
“What on earth for?” demanded Jim.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “We were talking about life being so dull and weary for the vast majority. And when I saw those two coming along, and the way they looked up at us, and so belligerent… I don’t know, I just suddenly thought it would be swell to make a face at them.”
“You nearly scared the wits out of them,” laughed Jim.
“I guess,” I admitted, “I put a little mystery into their lives. I guess there’s two old gals in this town that will have something to wonder about for a while.”
“For a while?” howled Jim, as the train started, and we could see no trace of the two startled ladies. “All their lives, you mean. That’s a thing they’ll never forget. Imagine walking innocently along and suddenly have people making faces at you out of train windows.”
“It’s a natural,” I admitted.
“It’s a swell idea,” cried Jim. “We’ll both do it at the next stop. Boy. what a kick. Making faces at perfect strangers from train windows.”
No Law Against It
So we sat and laughed and giggled until all the people around us shifted and changed their positions six or seven times. We had a happy half hour rehearsing faces. Then we felt the train slowing. We sat forward, our faces close to the glass. As the train came to stop the usual man with the drop on the end of his nose was standing on the platform. He was gazing blankly.
Jim and I waited until he looked at us.
Then we both made a dreadful face.
The poor fellow glanced quickly away, and then returned his astonished gaze to us. We instantly made two more hideous faces.
He wheeled and walked rapidly away down the platform.
We clutched each other in agony of laughter. Several of our fellow passengers sat up and craned their necks at us, outraged.
Two ladies came walking arm in arm along the platform, looking eagerly up at the windows. They were middle-aged ladies.
“Wait a minute, Jim,” I hissed, ducking back. But Jim was forward, his laughter-flushed face almost pressed against the window, and indulging in the most awful face you ever saw. Eyes hugged, tongue out mouth twisted into a regular gargoyle grin.
“Oh, oh,” said Jim, sitting suddenly back. I looked out. There were the two ladies, pointing accusingly at our window, and they had the brakeman and conductor with them.
“Oh, oh,” repeated Jim. “They stopped and pointed, and the conductor was right behind them.”
“There’s no law against making faces,” I said, resolutely. “Anybody can make faces. But what worries me, those are the same two ladies I made a face at back at the last station.”.
“Ow,” said Jim. “They’re passengers, then. They were out for air.”
“Ow,” I agreed, seeing, out of the corner of my eye, the conductor and the two ladies, all drawn up with their chins in and a look of battle in their faces, coming into the parlor car.
“That’s them,” said a clear, thin voice.
“Pardon me,” said the conductor, “pardon me, gents, but these two ladies say you were making faces at them. I don’t know just what …”
“Is there any law against is making faces?” I asked in a low voice, because the train had not yet started.
“There certainly is no regulation,” said the conductor, “no regulation in the company’s rules about making faces.”
One of the ladies brushed the conductor aside, and stood before me. I rose, politely.
“Just because you’re riding in the parlor car,” cried the lady shrilly, “you can’t sit there making faces at innocent women.”
“Ma’am,” I said, “I’m very sorry. I have hay fever. I have a very bad cold, that is my nose itches …”
“Does his nose itch, too?” the lady demanded, pointing at Jim. “The most awful, most dreadful face, he made at us. Two ladies, walking on the platform.”
“If there is no rule of the company,” I said, politely, “and no law preventing us from making faces, after all…”
“Very well,” said the lady, breathlessly, and turning white. “Very well, mister man, if there is no law…”
And with that she swung her leather purse on its strap and cracked me on the head. And, to make the payment in full, cash, she turned, and took a spiteful whang at Jim, who was still seated, looking very unparlorish.
And shoving the conductor, she and her lady friend, heads high, marched back out of the parlor car, their duty done.
“Imph,” I said. “Harrummph. Jim, let’s have a smoke in the smoking end.”
Which we did, and listened with great interest to the big dark fat men and their cigars, nasaling along about the King and business and Dicky Bennett and all that stuff, all the way to Montreal.
Editor’s Notes: Mackenzie King was the current Prime Minister of Canada at the time, and “Dicky Bennett” would be R. B. Bennett, the leader of the Conservative party, and former Prime Minister. If people were also talking about Spain, it would be because of the Spanish Civil War which was still in progress.