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The first-class smoking compartment was the emptiest in the whole train, and even this was hot to suffocation, because my only companion denied me more than an inch of open window. His chest, he explained curtly, was "susceptible." As we crawled westward through the glaring country, the sun's rays reverberated on the carriage roof till I seemed to be crushed under an anvil, counting the strokes. I had dropped my book, and was staring listlessly out of the window. At the other end of the compartment my fellow-passenger had pulled down the blinds, and hidden his face behind the Western Morning News. He was a red and choleric little man of about sixty, with a protuberant stomach, a prodigious nose, to which he carried snuff about once in two minutes, and a marked deformity of the shoulders. For comfort--and also, perhaps, to hide this hump--he rested his back in the angle by the window. He wore a black alpaca coat, a high stock, white waistcoat, and trousers of shepherd's plaid. On these and a few other trivial details I built a lazy hypothesis that he was a lawyer, and unmarried.
Just before entering the station at Lostwithiel, our train passed between the white gates of a level crossing. A moment before I had caught sight of the George drooping from the church spire, and at the crossing I saw it was regatta-day in the small town. The road was thick with people and lined with sweet-standings; and by the near end of the bridge a Punch-and-Judy show had just closed a performance. The orchestra had unloosed his drum, and fallen to mopping the back of his neck with the red handkerchief that had previously bound the panpipes to his chin. A crowd still loitered around, and among it I noted several men and women in black--ugly stains upon the pervading sunshine.
The station platform was cram-full as we drew up, and it was clear at once that all the carriages in the train would be besieged, without regard to class. By some chance, however, ours was neglected, and until the very last moment we seemed likely to escape. The guard's whistle was between his lips when I heard a shout, then one or two feminine screams, and a company of seven or eight persons came charging out of the booking-office. Every one of them was apparelled in black: they were, in fact, the people I had seen gaping at the Punch-and-Judy show.
In a moment one of the men tore open the door of our compartment, and we were invaded. One--two--four--six--seven--in they poured, tumbling over my legs, panting, giggling inanely, exhorting each other to hurry--an old man, two youths, three middle-aged women, and a little girl about four years old. I heard a fierce guttural sound, and saw my fellow-passenger on his feet, choking with wrath and gesticulating. But the guard slammed the door on his resentment, and the train moved on. As it gathered speed he fell back, all purple above his stock, snatched his malacca walking-cane from under the coat-tails of a subsiding youth, stuck it upright between his knees, and glared round upon the intruders. They were still possessed with excitement over their narrow escape, and unconscious of offence. One of the women dropped into the corner seat, and took the little girl on her lap. The child's dusty boots rubbed against the old gentleman's trousers. He shifted his position, grunted, and took snuff furiously.
"That was nibby-jibby," observed the old man of the party, while his eyes wandered round for a seat.
"I declare I thought I should ha' died," panted a robust-looking woman with a wart on her cheek, and a yard of crape hanging from her bonnet. "Can't 'een find nowhere to sit, uncle?"
"Reckon I must make shift 'pon your lap, Susannah."
This was said with a chuckle, and the woman tittered.
"What new-fang'd game be this o' the Great Western's? Arms to the seats, I vow. We'll have to sit intimate, my dears."
"'Tis First Class," one of the young men announced in a chastened whisper: "I saw it written on the door."
There was a short silence of awe.
"Well!" ejaculated Susannah: "I thought, when first I sat down, that the cushions felt extraordinary plum. You don't think they'll fine us?"
"It all comes of our stoppin' to gaze at that Punch-an'-Judy," the old fellow went on, after I had shown them how to turn back the arm-seats, and they were settled in something like comfort. "But I never could refrain from that antic, though I feels condemned too, in a way, an' poor Thomas laid in earth no longer ago than twelve noon. But in the midst of life we are in death."
"I don't remember a more successful buryin'," said the woman who held the little girl.
"That was partly luck, as you may say, it bein' regatta-day an' the fun o' the fair not properly begun. I counted a lot at the cemetery I didn' know by face, an' I set 'em down for excursionists, that caught sight of a funeral, an' followed it to fill up the time."
"It all added."
"Oh, aye; Thomas was beautifully interred."
By this time the heat in the carriage was hardly more overpowering than the smell of crape, broadcloth, and camphor. The youth who had wedged himself next to me carried a large packet of "fairing," which he had bought at one of the sweet-stalls. He began to insert it into his side pocket, and in his struggles drove an elbow sharply into my ribs. I shifted my position a little.
"Tom's wife would ha' felt it a source o' pride, had she lived."
But I ceased to listen; for in moving I had happened to glance at the further end of the carriage, and there my attention was arrested by a curious little piece of pantomime. The little girl--a dark-eyed, intelligent child, whose pallor was emphasised by the crape which smothered her--was looking very closely at the old gentleman with the hump--staring at him hard, in fact. He, on the other hand, was leaning forward, with both hands on the knob of his malacca, his eyes bent on the floor and his mouth squared to the surliest expression. He seemed quite unconscious of her scrutiny, and was tapping one foot impatiently on the floor.
After a minute I was surprised to see her lean forward and touch him gently on the knee.
He took no notice beyond shuffling about a little and uttering a slight growl. The woman who held her put out an arm and drew back the child's hand reprovingly. The child paid no heed to this, but continued to stare. Then in another minute she again bent forward, and tapped the old gentleman's knee.
This time she fetched a louder growl from him, and an irascible glare. Not in the least daunted, she took hold of his malacca, and shook it to and fro in her small hand.
"I wish to heavens, madam, you'd keep your child to yourself!"
"For shame, Annie!" whispered the poor woman, cowed by his look.
But again Annie paid no heed. Instead, she pushed the malacca towards the old gentleman, saying--
"Please, sir, will 'ee warm Mister Barrabel wi' this?"
He moved uneasily, and looked harshly at her without answering. "For shame, Annie!" the woman murmured a second time; but I saw her lean back, and a tear started and rolled down her cheek.
"If you please, sir," repeated Annie, "will 'ee warm Mister Barrabel wi' this?"
The old gentleman stared round the carriage. In his eyes you could read the question, "What in the devil's name does the child mean?" The robust woman read it there, and answered him huskily--
"Poor mite! she's buried her father this mornin'; an' Mister Barrabel is the coffin-maker, an' nailed 'en down."
"Now," said Annie, this time eagerly, "will 'ee warm him same as the big doll did just now?"
Luckily, the old gentleman did not understand this last allusion. He had not seen the group around the Punch-and-Judy show; nor, if he had, is it likely he would have guessed the train of thought in the child's mind. But to me, as I looked at my fellow-passenger's nose and the deformity of his shoulders, and remembered how Punch treats the undertaker in the immortal drama, it was all plain enough. I glanced at the child's companions. Nothing in their faces showed that they took the allusion; and the next moment I was glad to think that I alone knew what had prompted Annie's speech.
For the next moment, with a beautiful change on his face, the old gentleman had taken the child on his knee, and was talking to her as I dare say he had never talked before.
"Are you her mother?" he asked, looking up suddenly, and addressing the woman opposite.
"Her mother's been dead these two year. I'm her aunt, an' I'm takin' her home to rear 'long wi' my own childer."
He was bending over Annie, and had resumed his chat. It was all nonsense--something about the silver knob of his malacca--but it took hold of the child's fancy and comforted her. At the next station I had to alight, for it was the end of my journey. But looking back into the carriage as I shut the door, I saw Annie bending forward over the walking-stick, and following the pattern of its silverwork with her small finger. Her face was turned from the old gentleman's, and behind her little black hat his eyes were glistening.
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