Starting the Train by George A. Birmingham
Tom O'Donovan leaned as far as possible out of the window of the railway carriage, a first-class smoking carriage.
"Good-bye Jessie, old girl," he said. "I'll be back the day after to-morrow, or the next day at latest. Take care of yourself."
Mrs. O'Donovan, who was not very tall, stood on tip-toe while he kissed her.
"You'll have time enough to get dinner in Dublin," she said, "or will you dine on the boat?"
"They give you a pretty fair dinner on the boat," said Tom, "and it's less fussy to go on board at once."
She had said that to him before, and he had made the same answer; but it is necessary to keep on saying something while waiting for a train to start, and on such occasions there is very seldom anything fresh to say.
"And you'll see Mr. Manners to-morrow morning," she said, after a short pause.
"Appointment for 10.30," said Tom. "I'll breakfast at the Euston Hotel and take the tube to his office. Bye-bye, old girl."
But the "bye-bye," like the kiss, was premature. The train did not start.
"If I get Manners' agency," said Tom, "we'll be on the pig's back. You'll be driving about in a big car with a fur coat on you in the inside of six months."
"Be as fascinating as you can, Tom," she said.
"He'd hardly have asked me to go all the way to London," said Tom, "if he wasn't going to give me the agency."
They had reasoned all that out half-a-dozen times since the letter arrived which summoned Tom to an interview in Mr. Manners' office. There was no doubt that the agency, which meant the sole right of selling the Manners' machines in Ireland, would be exceedingly profitable. And Tom O'Donovan believed that he had secured it.
He glanced at the watch on his wrist.
"I wonder what the deuce we're waiting for," he said.
But passengers on Irish railways now-a-days are all accustomed to trains which do not start, and have learned the lesson of patience. Tom waited, without any sign of irritation, Mrs. O'Donovan chatted pleasantly to him. The train had reached the station in good time. It was due in Dublin two hours before the mail boat left Kingstown. There was no need to feel worried.
Yet at the end of half-an-hour Tom did begin to feel worried. When three-quarters of an hour had passed he became acutely anxious.
"If we don't get a move on soon," he said, "I shall miss the boat, and--I say, Jessie, this is getting serious."
Missing the boat meant missing his appointment in London next morning, and then--why, then Manners would probably give the agency to someone else. Tom opened the door of his carriage and jumped out.
"I'll speak to the guard," he said, "and find out what's the matter."
The guard, a fat, good-humoured looking man, was talking earnestly to the engine driver. Tom O'Donovan addressed him explosively.
"Why the devil don't you go on?" he said.
"The train is not going on to-day," said the guard. "It'll maybe never go on at all."
It was the engine driver who replied. He was a tall, grave man, and he spoke with dignity, as if he were accustomed to making public speeches on solemn occasions.
"This train," he said, "will not be used for the conveyance of the armed forces of the English Crown, which country is presently at war with the Irish Republic."
"There's soldiers got into the train at this station," said the guard, in a friendly explanatory tone, "and the way things is it wouldn't suit us to be going on, as long as them ones," he pointed to the rear of the train with his thumb, "stays where they are."
"But--oh, hang it all!--if the train doesn't go cm I shall miss the mail boat at Kingstown, and if I'm not in London to-morrow morning I shall lose the best part of £1,000 a year."
"That would be a pity now," said the guard. "And I'd be sorry for any gentleman to be put to such a loss. But what can we do? The way things is at the present time it wouldn't suit either the driver or me to be taking the train on while there'd be soldiers in it. It's queer times we're having at present and that's a fact."
The extreme queerness of the times offered no kind of consolation to Tom O'Donovan. But he knew it was no good arguing with the guard.
He contented himself with the fervent expression of an opinion which he honestly held.
"It would be a jolly good thing for everybody," he said, "if the English army and the Irish Republic and your silly war and every kind of idiot who goes in for politics were put into a pot together and boiled down for soup."
He turned and walked away. As he went he heard the guard expressing mild agreement with his sentiment.
"It might be," said the guard. "I wouldn't say but that might be the best in the latter end."
Tom O'Donovan, having failed with the guard and the engine driver, made up his mind to try what he could do with the soldiers. He was not very hopeful of persuading them to leave the train; but his position was so nearly desperate that he was unwilling to surrender any chance. He found a smart young sergeant and six men of the Royal Wessex Light Infantry seated in a third-class carriage. They wore shrapnel helmets, and their rifles were propped up between their knees.
"Sergeant," said Tom, "I suppose you know you are holding up the whole train."
"My orders, sir," said the sergeant, "is to travel---"
"Oh, I know all about your orders. But look here. It would suit you just as well to hold up the next train. There's another in two hours, and you can get into it and sit in it all night. But if you don't let this train go on I shall miss the boat at Kingstown, and if I'm not in London to-morrow morning I stand to lose £1,000 a year."
"Very sorry, sir," said the sergeant, "but my orders--I'd be willing to oblige, especially any gentleman who is seriously inconvenienced. But orders is orders, sir."
Jessie O'Donovan, who had been following her husband up and down the platform, caught his arm.
"What is the matter, Tom?" she said. "If the train doesn't start soon you'll miss the boat. Why don't they go on?"
"Oh, politics, as usual, Jessie," said Tom. "I declare to goodness it's enough to make a man want to go to heaven before his time, just to be able to live under an absolute monarchy where there can't be any politics. But I'm not done yet. I'll have another try at getting along before I chuck the whole thing up. Is there a girl anywhere about, a good-looking girl?"
"There's the young woman in the bookstalls," said Jessie, "but she's not exactly pretty. What do you want a girl for?"
Tom glanced at the bookstall.
"She won't do at all," he said. "They all know her, and, besides, she doesn't look the part. But I know where I'll get the girl I want. Jessie, do you run over to the booking office and buy two third-class returns to Dublin."
He left her standing on the platform while he jumped on to the line behind the train, crossed it, and climbed the other platform. She saw him pass through the gate and run along the road to the town. Being a loyal and obedient wife she went to the booking office and bought two tickets, undisturbed by the knowledge that her husband was running fast in search of a girl, a good-looking girl.
Tom O'Donovan, having run a hundred yards at high speed, entered a small tobacconist's shop. Behind the counter was a girl, young and very pretty. She was one of those girls whose soft appealing eyes and general look of timid helplessness excite first the pity, then the affection of most men.
"Susie," said Tom O'Donovan, breathlessly, "ran upstairs and put on your best dress and your nicest hat and all the ribbons and beads you have. Make yourself look as pretty as you can, but don't be more than ten minutes over the job, And send your father to me."
Tom O'Donovan was a regular and valued customer. Susie had known him as a most agreeable gentleman since she was ten years old. She saw that he was in a hurry and occupied with some important affair. She did as he told her without stopping to ask any questions. Two minutes later her father entered the shop from the room behind it.
"Farrelly," said Tom O'Donovan, "I want the loan of your daughter for about four hours. She'll be back by the last train down from Dublin."
"If it was any other gentleman only yourself, Mr. O'Donovan, who asked me the like of that I'd kick him out of the shop."
"Oh! it's all right," said Tom, "my wife will be with her the whole time and bring her back safe."
"I'm not asking what you want her for, Mr. O'Donovan," said Farrelly, "but if it was any other gentleman only yourself I would ask."
"I want to take her up to Dublin along with my wife," said Tom, "and send her down by the next train. I'd explain the whole thing to you if I had time, but I haven't. All I can tell you is that I'll most likely lose £1,000 a year if I don't get Susie."
"Say no more, Mr. O'Donovan," said Far-relly. "If that's the way of it you and Mrs. O'Donovan can have the loan of Susie for as long as pleases you."
Susie changed her dress amazingly quickly. She was back in the shop in six minutes, wearing a beautiful blue hat, a frock that was almost new, and three strings of beads round her neck.
"Come on," said O'Donovan, "we haven't a minute to lose."
They walked together very quickly to the station.
"Susie," said Tom, "I'm going to put you into a carriage by yourself, and when you get there you're to sit in a corner and cry. If you can't cry----"
"I can if I like," said Susie.
"Very well, then do. Get your eyes red and your face swollen and have tears running down your cheeks if you can manage it, and when I come for you again you're to sob. Don't speak a word no matter what anyone says to you, but sob like--like a motor bicycle."
"I will," said Susie.
"And if you do it well, I'll buy you the smartest blouse in London to-morrow and bring it home to you."
When they reached the station they jumped down from the platform and crossed the line to the train. Tom opened the door of an empty third-class carriage and pushed Susie into it. Then he went round to the back of the train and climbed on to the platform.
He made straight for the carriage in which the soldiers sat.
"Sergeant," he said, "will you come along with me for a minute?"
The sergeant, who was beginning to find his long vigil rather dull, warned his men to stay where they were. Then he got out and followed Tom O'Donovan. Tom led him to the carriage in which Susie sat. The girl had done very well since he left her. Her eyes were red and swollen. Her cheeks were slobbered. She held a handkerchief in her hand rolled into a tight damp ball.
"You see that girl," said Tom.
"Yes, sir," said the sergeant. "Seems to be in trouble, sir."
"She's in perfectly frightful trouble," said Tom. "She's on her way to Dublin--or she would be if this train would start--so as to catch the night mail to Cork. She was to have been married in Cork to-morrow morning and to have gone off to America by a steamer which leaves Queenstown at 10.30 a.m. Now of course, the whole thing is off. She won't get to Dublin or Cork, and so can't be married."
Susie, when she heard this pitiful story, sobbed convulsively.
"It's very sad," said Tom.
The sergeant, a nice, tender-hearted young man, looked at Susie's pretty face and was greatly affected.
"Perhaps her young man will wait for her, sir," he said.
"He can't do that," said Tom. "The fact is that he's a demobilised soldier, served all through the war and won the V.C. And the Sinn Feiners have warned him that he'll be shot if he isn't out of the country before midday to-morrow."
Susie continued to sob with great vigour and intensity. The sergeant was deeply moved.
"It's cruel hard, sir," he said. "But my orders----"
"I'm not asking you to disobey orders," said Tom, "but in a case like this, for the sake of that poor young girl and the gallant soldier who wants to marry her--a comrade of your own, sergeant. You may have known him out in France--I think you ought to stretch a point. Listen to me now!"
He drew the sergeant away from the door of the carriage and whispered to him.
"I'll do it, sir," said the sergeant. "My orders say nothing about that point."
"You do what I suggest," said Tom, "and I'll fix things up with the guard."
He found the guard and the engine driver awaiting events in the station-master's office. They were quite willing to follow him to the carriage in which Susie sat. They listened with deep emotion to the story which Tom told them. It was exactly the same story which he told the sergeant, except this time the bridegroom was a battalion commander of the Irish Volunteers whose life was threatened by a malignant Black-and-Tan. Susie sobbed as bitterly as before.
"It's a hard case, so it is," said the guard, "and if there was any way of getting the young lady to Dublin----"
"There's only one way," said Tom, "and that's to take on this train."
"It's what we can't do," said the engine driver, "not if all the girls in Ireland was wanting to get married. So long as the armed forces of England----"
"But they're not armed," said Tom.
"Michael." said the engine driver to the guard, "did you not tell me that them soldiers has guns with them and tin hats on their heads?"
"I did tell you that," said the guard, "and I told you the truth."
"My impression is," said Tom, "that those soldiers aren't armed at all. They seem to be a harmless set of men off to Dublin on leave, very likely going to be married themselves. They're certainly not on duty."
The engine driver scratched his head.
Susie, inspired by a wink from Tom, broke into a despairing wail.
"If that's the way of it," said the engine driver, "it would be different, of course."
"Come and see," said Tom.
The sergeant and his men were sitting in their compartment smoking cigarettes. Their heads were bare. Most of them had their tunics unbuttoned. One of them was singing a song, in which the whole party joined:
"Mary, Jane and Polly Find it very jolly When we take them out with us to Tea--tea--tea!"
There was not a single rifle to be seen anywhere.
"There now," said Tom. "You see for yourselves. You can't call those men munitions of war."
The guard, who had seen the soldiers march into the station, was puzzled; but the engine driver seemed convinced that there had been some mistake.
"I'll do it," he said, "for the sake of the young girl and the brave lad that wants to marry her, I'll take the train to Dublin."
"Well, hurry up," said Tom. "Drive that old engine of yours for all she's worth."
The driver hastened to his post. The guard blew his whistle shrilly. Tom seized his wife by the arm.
"Hop into the carriage with Susie Farrelly," he said. "Dry her eyes, and tell her I'll spend £5 on a silk blouse for her, pink or blue or any colour she likes. I'll explain the whole thing to you when we get to Dublin. I can't travel with you. The guard is only half convinced and might turn suspicious if he saw us together."
Tom O'Donovan caught, just caught the mail boat at Kingstown. He secured the agency for the sale of the Manners' machines in Ireland. He is in a fair way to becoming a very prosperous man; but it is unlikely that he will ever be a member either of Parliament or Dail Eireann. He says that politics interfere with business.