Next> | <Prev | End

From Out of Soundings, Copyright 1931 by H. M. Tomlinson, New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers. Chapter 11, p160-171.

The Changeling

H. M. Tomlinson

THE windows of the railway carriage were thickened with rain. I could see little of the country except the telegraph posts and wires unendingly rising and falling in flight beside the line. The book I was reading was as long as the journey. It was a volume of history: it was deliberate with quotations from state papers and the speeches and letters of puissant men, because its author intended that if I remained in ignorance of the evidence, then the blame should not be his. The book, coolly and without haste, attempted to unravel a tangle in the story of mankind, a tangle that was recent, one indeed which had had me in its knots, one that I was well aware could not be attributed to a cause so simple and fair as was Helen of Troy. My author's discreet purpose was that I should be deprived of the consolation of romance for so confused and evil an epoch; nevertheless, he could not help deepening my wonder over the strangeness of life.

The telegraph wire fled undulating past. There were still many hours to go. And this book, I must confess, was not sedative, though compelling. A reader's tidy mind was disordered by it. It fascinated him with a suggestion that, though the laws of the great universe have no concern with morality, which is a various imposition of our own, yet somehow the conceits of men of noble purpose, who would do good by stealth, may bring down evil on us instead, yet logically, out of the blue void which should know not good nor evil. How does that happen? I considered so unlucky a mystery, having nothing else to do, while reading this history, until the fear came that high life was a drama, not of kings, courtiers, diplomats, statesmen, and spies, but of phantoms, blind agents of what could not be named, inscrutable and inimical genii, moved by humane reasons to unholy stratagems, provoking an unintended crisis, all for our good, from which we averted our faces in horror. It was as baffling as a nightmare, in which fantastic logic moves the silent shadows to an infelicity which is both ridiculous and dire. I began to feel I had read my book long enough.

My eye roved over my fellow passengers, who were, I believe, commercial travellers. I was glad of that. They were not historians or philosophers. One of them was certainly free of troubled concern with the fateful moves of unsuspecting life. I found his appearance quite heartening. After all, the world had a number of such men, such young men, large of limb, and superior with health and cheerfulness. He was handsome and blithe, and on a day of rain and wearying travel was trying to keep fellow mortals amused by trickery with cards. He was clever. He could do things with them which were unexpected and absurd. He was not at all the sort of man to have against you at the card-table. Presently he put away the cards; they could do no more for us. He enquired of one of the other men about a colleague, to be told that that colleague had met with misfortune. I learned enough to know that somewhere in the background was a principal with a hard face, who never could be convinced that orders for merchandise are seldom given by customers too poor to buy it.

The men laughed and smoked, indolent and reminiscent, and told each other stories of various employers and their ways. As I listened, for in good nature they addressed themselves to me as well, I began to learn a little of the virtues one had to acquire, when not inherited, for success on the road. It seemed to me, too, as I watched them, that these worthy men would be no more likely to regard in curiosity the unravelling of the knots in the history I had been reading than if that human drama had been written in hieroglyphics. They would not care. They were practical men, and dealt with measurable commodities. The dark of the mind, which occasionally gives the history of humanity the semblance of figures of moonshine compelled to bedevilment, was not obscure to them. Either it was not there, or at its worst it was only the conscious disguise of low cunning.

Then the talk veered to the strange people they had met when travelling. One of them remembered an old lady, who entered his compartment only last week and brought with her a small wheelbarrow, in which was a brown-paper parcel. She did not sit on a seat. She sat on her barrow, protecting her parcel with her person. The train moved on, and the old lady had composed herself. Our friend could not help noting her with some surprise, and she must have seen she was observed. She advised him that if he dared to talk any of his nonsense she would ring the alarm. His fancy conversation was not desired. She knew his sort. She had brought, she warned him, her own alarm, for she was too short to reach the apparatus provided for emergencies by the railway company. She put beside her on the seat in readiness her alarm, a bell for a restaurant table.

That amused us. Did he make her ring it? We found we had quite a collection of such oddities. We showed them to each other. There was the sinister fellow who manages to get in with you at night, when you are alone. There were others, not quite so common. The handsome young man, who had been so clever with a pack of cards, told us of a strange encounter he once had on a railway journey.

"Well, he was about the funniest old duck I've ever met. I've never been able to make out what his little game was. He made me rather nervous at first. You see, I'm blest if I know where he came from. I hadn't noticed him. That was the worst of it, for I do notice people. There he was, anyhow, in my compartment. How did he get there? Through a ventilator, if you like. He was crazy right enough.

"I've thought about him since. You listen to me. I want to know how he got in. What? Yes, of course. A corridor coach. We were on the move. No stop since Paddington, and I was the only one in the compartment, nobody else. And I happen to know that coach did not connect with the rest of the train, because I'd been along the corridor. I was in the end compartment, a smoker. There were only about six people in the carriage. Eh? Oh yes, we did stop at Reading, but I noticed no change in the other compartments, for I went along again. About six people altogether, in the coach. I know what I'm talking about.

"I was sitting with my feet up, smoking, when I noticed this old chap for the first time. He was in the corridor, staring into the next compartment. Nobody was in there, I knew. I was in it a minute before, and got a newspaper I saw on the seat. I had nothing to read. Only had just time enough to get into the train. I didn't take much notice of the man standing there. He had no hat. His grey hair was rumpled. I thought he seemed a bit anxious, as if he was looking for some one, but nobody was in that compartment. Then I forgot him.

"After a bit I heard a voice. 'Excuse me, sir.' I looked up. Hullo! thinks I, an American. Anyhow, his clothes had a rum cut, his face was smooth and pale, and he had a short grey moustache. He had an angler's basket slung behind him--hanging down by his side--what d'ye call it?--a creel. That's right. I wondered what he wanted that thing for. Sandwiches, perhaps. I couldn't make out where he had been sitting. You could hardly miss such a chap."

"Well, he was there then, so he must have been there before," interrupted one of us.

"That's right. Only I always notice people, and I hadn't noticed him. I was going to say that he pushed into my compartment. Damned his own basket. It got in his way. He was very excited. He was trembling.

"'Have you seen my luggage, sir?' he asked. But he didn't give me time to say no. He rattled on, without looking at me. 'But of course you haven't. Facing the engine, my corridor was on the left, and this one's on the right. This isn't the carriage. I don't know this carriage,' says the old chap. 'What shall I do?' he said.

"I didn't know what to say to him. I wished he'd go away. But he only went to the other window and looked out. Then he muttered to himself 'I suppose I must wait till I reach Doncaster.'

"'What?' I said to him. 'Doncaster? This train doesn't go to Doncaster.'

"You should have seen that old face. I might have insulted him. He looked at me. At first he seemed angry, and then jolly miserable. He put his hands over his eyes. Then he looked at me again, and said, very quietly, 'Tell me, young man, when did we leave King's Cross?'

"'Why,' I said to him, 'you ought to know that West of England trains don't go from King's Cross. We left Paddington about six.'

"That did it. That tore it. His jaw dropped. I could see by his face he was cracked, and I wondered what he would do next. But what surprised me was the way he controlled himself. 'Of course,' he said, putting his hand over his eyes again. 'Of course. Paddington.'

"I felt like laughing, but I thought I'd better not. Might touch him off. Then the old fellow bundled through the door again into the corridor, and was going away. But he came back and spoke to me. He was quite cool, but his face was twitching. 'I want to tell you, young man,' says he, 'that I did leave King's Cross, and I was going to York. You are lying. This train is lying. My clothes are lying. I don't know them. What does this basket mean? I don't want it. It isn't mine.'

"He was nodding slowly at me as he spoke. I didn't answer him. Thought it better not to. 'I tell you,' he went on, 'that I left my hat on the seat. Where is it? I left it on the seat when I went forward to the dining-car to dinner. I know I did. Now I can't find it. I come back, and I can't find anything I know. I can't find even that dining-car now.'

"Nice position for me to be in, wasn't it?" said the young commercial. "I wished one of the other passengers would come along. But he seemed very quiet. Anyhow, the old boy looked a good deal more scared than I felt. He really did. Talked an awful lot, to try and convince me. He said he'd given the waiter sixpence, and that he'd know the man anywhere. He said he'd upset a bottle of dry ginger on the dinner-table. Little things like that. He seemed to be trying to remember them.

"When we stopped at Bath, the collector came for the tickets. My strange pal asked for the diner. He was told there wasn't one. Hadn't been. The collector asked again for his ticket. I think the collector had the idea that the poor old dear was trying to rush the company.

"The old boy seemed paralysed with astonishment. Said he'd give them his card, and all that. Pulled out his pocket-book. He looked at it, looked over at me, and whispered, 'It's not mine.' Then he flung a visting-card at me. 'I don't know him,' he cried. 'I was never in America, never there, never.'

"I've got that card now. It has a name, 'Otto R. Ralph.' Funny name, isn't it? They had some trouble in getting him out. I've often wondered what became of him."

^Top | Next>