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The Secret of a Train

All this talk of a railway mystery has sent my mind back to a
loose memory. I will not merely say that this story is true:
because, as you will soon see, it is all truth and no story.
It has no explanation and no conclusion; it is, like most of the other
things we encounter in life, a fragment of something else which
would be intensely exciting if it were not too large to be seen.
For the perplexity of life arises from there being too many
interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any
of them; what we call its triviality is really the tag-ends
of numberless tales; ordinary and unmeaning existence is like ten
thousand thrilling detective stories mixed up with a spoon.
My experience was a fragment of this nature, and it is, at any rate,
not fictitious. Not only am I not making up the incidents
(what there were of them), but I am not making up the atmosphere
of the landscape, which were the whole horror of the thing.
I remember them vividly, and they were as I shall now describe.

. . . . .

About noon of an ashen autumn day some years ago I was standing
outside the station at Oxford intending to take the train to London.
And for some reason, out of idleness or the emptiness of my mind
or the emptiness of the pale grey sky, or the cold, a kind of caprice
fell upon me that I would not go by that train at all, but would step
out on the road and walk at least some part of the way to London.
I do not know if other people are made like me in this matter;
but to me it is always dreary weather, what may be called
useless weather, that slings into life a sense of action and romance.
On bright blue days I do not want anything to happen; the world
is complete and beautiful, a thing for contemplation. I no more
ask for adventures under that turquoise dome than I ask for
adventures in church. But when the background of man's life is
a grey background, then, in the name of man's sacred supremacy,
I desire to paint on it in fire and gore. When the heavens fail
man refuses to fail; when the sky seems to have written on it, in
letters of lead and pale silver, the decree that nothing shall
happen, then the immortal soul, the prince of the creatures, rises
up and decrees that something shall happen, if it be only the
slaughter of a policeman. But this is a digressive way of stating
what I have said already--that the bleak sky awoke in me a hunger
for some change of plans, that the monotonous weather seemed to
render unbearable the use of the monotonous train, and that I set
out into the country lanes, out of the town of Oxford. It was,
perhaps, at that moment that a strange curse came upon me out of
the city and the sky, whereby it was decreed that years afterwards
I should, in an article in the DAILY NEWS, talk about Sir George
Trevelyan in connection with Oxford, when I knew perfectly well
that he went to Cambridge.

As I crossed the country everything was ghostly and colourless.
The fields that should have been green were as grey as the skies;
the tree-tops that should have been green were as grey as the clouds
and as cloudy. And when I had walked for some hours the evening
was closing in. A sickly sunset clung weakly to the horizon,
as if pale with reluctance to leave the world in the dark.
And as it faded more and more the skies seemed to come closer and
to threaten. The clouds which had been merely sullen became swollen;
and then they loosened and let down the dark curtains of the rain.
The rain was blinding and seemed to beat like blows from an enemy
at close quarters; the skies seemed bending over and bawling
in my ears. I walked on many more miles before I met a man,
and in that distance my mind had been made up; and when I met
him I asked him if anywhere in the neighbourhood I could pick up
the train for Paddington. He directed me to a small silent station
(I cannot even remember the name of it) which stood well away
from the road and looked as lonely as a hut on the Andes.
I do not think I have ever seen such a type of time and sadness
and scepticism and everything devilish as that station was:
it looked as if it had always been raining there ever since
the creation of the world. The water streamed from the soaking
wood of it as if it were not water at all, but some loathsome
liquid corruption of the wood itself; as if the solid station
were eternally falling to pieces and pouring away in filth.
It took me nearly ten minutes to find a man in the station.
When I did he was a dull one, and when I asked him if there was
a train to Paddington his answer was sleepy and vague. As far as I
understood him, he said there would be a train in half an hour.
I sat down and lit a cigar and waited, watching the last tail
of the tattered sunset and listening to the everlasting rain.
It may have been in half an hour or less, but a train came rather
slowly into the station. It was an unnaturally dark train;
I could not see a light anywhere in the long black body of it;
and I could not see any guard running beside it. I was reduced
to walking up to the engine and calling out to the stoker to ask
if the train was going to London. "Well--yes, sir," he said, with
an unaccountable kind of reluctance. "It is going to London;
but----" It was just starting, and I jumped into the first
carriage; it was pitch dark. I sat there smoking and wondering,
as we steamed through the continually darkening landscape, lined
with desolate poplars, until we slowed down and stopped,
irrationally, in the middle of a field. I heard a heavy noise as
of some one clambering off the train, and a dark, ragged head
suddenly put itself into my window. "Excuse me, sir," said the
stoker, "but I think, perhaps--well, perhaps you ought to know--
there's a dead man in this train."

. . . . .

Had I been a true artist, a person of exquisite susceptibilities
and nothing else, I should have been bound, no doubt, to be
finally overwhelmed with this sensational touch, and to have
insisted on getting out and walking. As it was, I regret to
say, I expressed myself politely, but firmly, to the effect that
I didn't care particularly if the train took me to Paddington.
But when the train had started with its unknown burden I did do
one thing, and do it quite instinctively, without stopping to
think, or to think more than a flash. I threw away my cigar.
Something that is as old as man and has to do with all mourning
and ceremonial told me to do it. There was something
unnecessarily horrible, it seemed to me, in the idea of there
being only two men in that train, and one of them dead and the
other smoking a cigar. And as the red and gold of the butt end
of it faded like a funeral torch trampled out at some symbolic
moment of a procession, I realised how immortal ritual is. I
realised (what is the origin and essence of all ritual) that in
the presence of those sacred riddles about which we can say
nothing it is more decent merely to do something. And I realised
that ritual will always mean throwing away something; DESTROYING
our corn or wine upon the altar of our gods.

When the train panted at last into Paddington Station I sprang
out of it with a suddenly released curiosity. There was a barrier
and officials guarding the rear part of the train; no one was
allowed to press towards it. They were guarding and hiding
something; perhaps death in some too shocking form, perhaps
something like the Merstham matter, so mixed up with human mystery
and wickedness that the land has to give it a sort of sanctity;
perhaps something worse than either. I went out gladly enough into
the streets and saw the lamps shining on the laughing faces. Nor
have I ever known from that day to this into what strange story I
wandered or what frightful thing was my companion in the dark.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton