Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE MAN IN THE WHITE HAT.

A SKETCH FROM RAILWAY LIFE.

BY A SEASON TicКЕТ.

For several months during the year I am an habitué of one of those main arteries which distribute the teeming life of the metropolis to the various extremities of the kingdom, and in due course of time restore it to the fountain head (considerably purified, let us hope), in accordance with those laws of circulation which may be deduced with tolerable aecuracy from our railway statistics. The directors on this particular line, in a spirit of economy which is powerfully suggestive of an increased dividend at the next half-yearly meeting of their constituents, have recently adopted a method of enlarging the capacity of their first-class carriages, at the expense of the passengers in the same, to which I (not being a shareholder), in common with many of my daily fellow-travellers, find it difficult to reconcile myself. I remember to have heard in the days of my infancy a maxim propounded by one who was profoundly versed in the science of domestic economy, that " what is dinner for one is dinner for two;" and though receiving it at the time with a scepticism natural enough at the age of jackets and “flats,” to whose preconceived notions of feeding this doctrine stands in startling opposition, I can well believe that these directors, imbued with the same principle, have come to the conclusion that where there is room for three, there is room for four. It is, of course, unnecessary to point out to what inconvenient results the adoption of this fallacious maxim, in its fullest extent, may lead; I will simply confine myself to a deseription of the means by which our iron rulers elicit the expansive properties of their “plant." "A first-class car. riage-whose compartments were originally intended to hold no more than six—is slightly drawn out at the sides—like an accordion--and a single partition is then fixed in the centre of each seat, so as to divide the interior into four sections. The result is, that as the natural modesty of mankind, and the sharp eyes of the railway officials are repugnant to the entire occupation of a single section by one person, eight individuals are deposited where the capacity of the vehicle would have been satisfied by six. Now I hate encroachments. I object to the Czar of Russia when he lays his rapacious hands upon some thousands of square miles of territory, to which he has about as much right as my excellent neighbour Brown can pretend to the half acre of cabbages that I have planted under his hedge; and I equally object to the authorities of this or any other line when they deprive me of four inches of my lawful seat, more especially as in the latter case the ambition assumes solely a financial, and therefore more revolting, aspeet. So long as one is located with a man of moderate dimensions the inconvenience is not greatly felt, but should fortune select as the partner in your allotment-once 'my unhappy fate! -an individual who might have competed with the great Daniel at a prize show with some reasonable chances of success, the victim of oppression is driven inch by inch from his ground, in spite of constant sorties to recover his position, and in the end is probably outflanked by the over

whelming masses of the enemy. I have said that I am not yet reconciled to the proceeding. When I shall have narrated the little incident which is recorded below, the unprejudiced reader-assuming always that he is neither a director nor a shareholder of the line aforesaid—will probably be disposed to think that my repugnance is not altogether unjustifiable.

Not very many months since I was charged with the pleasant duty of escorting to town two ladies (whom I will christen for the nonce Mrs. and Miss Smith), who were en route to effect a junction with a party of their friends, with the view of creating a diversion in favour of the Crystal Palace. I had deferred the usually early hour of my departure, and the train by which we proposed to leave E—was one much affected by the sojourners along the line, being termed by courtesy semiexpress, which, being interpreted, signified that it was scarcely so slow as the ordinary trains, and made fewer pauses in its transit. The consequence was that when it came up, and we had commenced instituting an investigation for an empty carriage, we could discover nothing better than a moiety of one of those objectionable bisected compartments which I have attempted to describe, and in which we accordingly proceeded to take up our quarters, leaving a vacancy between Mrs. Smith and one of the carriage windows. Scarcely had the ladies concluded that necessary disposition of their dress which appears to be inseparable from the two actions of rising up and sitting down, when a man of a somewhat gentlemanly cast of countenance, but “got up” in a white hat and a loose tweed overcoat, with general indications of running to seed about his extremities, and who—judging from his moist appearance—had only just caught the train, came hurriedly up to our carriage. He paused for a second on the step, as though pondering whether our compartment was not too uncomfortably full for him, but at that moment the words “ Take your places, gents !" 'ringing sharply in our ears, silenced his doubts, if any, and he stepped quietly into the vacant seat. Immediately the door was shut to with a smart bang, that gave a pleasing sensation of being well shaken up to everybody and everything—the porter and guard executed a rapid concerted movement on their respective instruments, the bell and whistle--the engine once more woke up into life-and we were off.

It was an undeniably hot day. Such a day as is of rare occurrence in these degenerate summers of ours (when the sun appears to do piecework only, and even then to take up but very small contracts at a time), with a glorious blue sky overhead, unshadowed scarcely by those fleecy vapours which are rarely absent from the most cloudless atmosphere, and the bright sunlight playing fitfully over the waving corn-fields, whose ears still green gave but faint indications of the coming harvest. The weather was likely enough to induce drowsiness, and yet I could not help being struck by the rapidity with which my vis-à-vis in the white hat sank into a profound slumber. Experience teaches that the afternoon siesta (Anglice, nap) of southern climates is not altogether unknown to the more wide-awake inhabitants of the north, and there are few places, probably, where so many specimens might be collected as in a downtrain on a warm afternoon ; but the appearance of this exotic at so early

an hour of the morning was something quite out of the common way, However, a lively discussion with the ladies on the respective merits of the different points of rendezvous in the Palace at Sydenham entirely diverted

my attention from the sleepy passenger, and we continued to argue for our several protégés with such earnestness as could scarcely fail to have disturbed the slumbers of any—but one of the seven sleepers. So the time passed pleasantly enough, until our slackening speed gave notice that we were approaching K-, the last station at which we were to pull up before reaching London. Laughing and talking, as the train was running joltingly in over the “points,” we were suddenly interrupted by a violent shock, which brought us up-in the expressive phraseology of the Yankees—"all of a heap;" in this case, perhaps, almost more literally than figuratively. There was a faint scream from the ladies, an ejaculation of a somewhat more forcible description from one of the other sex, whilst I thrust my head out of the window with the view of discovering what had happened. A guard was hurrying by, so I hailed him.

“What's wrong?" I inquired.

“She's run into some trucks, sir”-trains, by the courtesy of guards, are always feminine—"and the engine's damaged a bit-nothing more. We've telegraphed to town for another, which will be down under the half hour."

The delay was annoying, but at any rate it was satisfactory to find that no human machinery had been put out of order; so I drew in my head, and proposed to Mrs. Smith that we should follow the example of the multitude and leave the train. In doing so, however, my attention was again attracted to our somnolent friend; and-marvellous to relate —there he was, still as sound asleep as ever. Indeed, had another collision of a more violent character at that moment caused the carriage to collapse and driven us into one another, I could scarcely have felt greater surprise at seeing him—white hat and all-doubled up in a state of slumber. If Mr. Montague Tigg, of distinguished memory, had put

the spot the question which so irritated Mr. Jonas Chuzzlewit, “What is a light sleeper?”—I, following the example of certain lecturers who always propose to tell you what a thing is not when they cannot inform you what it is, was perfectly prepared to answer,

Certainly not the man in the white hat.” Indeed, for the instant, I felt tempted to commit myself to a mild joke with reference to the napless condition of this particular article of dress (which certainly, so far as could be seen, enjoyed a striking monopoly of hue among the rest of his toilette-linen not excepted), but fortunately the recollection of the age of the joke, and the knowledge that the nerves of my fellow-passengers had already been severely tried that day, induced me to refrain, and we stepped tranquilly upon the platform.

It so happens that K. is one of the favoured stations upon our line, where the ubiquitous Mr. W. H. Smith, who with the “Son” constitutes an entire Society for the Diffusion of Universal Knowledge, has pitched his wandering tent, and established a depôt whence the intellects of her Majesty's subjects in that district are provisioned and supplied with greater attention and regularity than are their physical wants from some other stores that I could name. A staple article of consumption

to me upon

[ocr errors]

consists in stacks of green-covered volumes, which profess, for a small sum, to supply you with reprints of the most readable works of those distinguished authors whom the leviathan publishers delight to honour. Now it suggested itself to the provident mind of Mrs. Smith (my Mrs. Smith—not Mrs. W. H.) that one of these vegetable-looking products might prove advantageous in the event of any further delay, and, having communicated her proposed investment to me, we proceeded slowly through the crowded platform to the stand. After a short consultation the selection was made, and Mrs. Smith put her hand into her pocket for her purse, when her countenance suddenly changed, and, before I could speak, she cried,

“ I've lost my purse!"

This is an unpleasant announcement to make at any time, but when a crowd of persons—all strangers—are standing round the bereaved party, it is anything but calculated to create a lively impression. Accordingly, indignant glances were exchanged, and those in our immediate vicinity began to move away slightly. However, I suggested that it might have been left at home; but this solution was met by the fact that Mrs. Smith had paid for her own and her daughter's tickets at E- I then proposed--though hopelessly, for I felt convinced that it had been abstracted by some skilful conveyancer in the crowd-to search for the missing porte-monnaie on the platform and in the carriage. In both places alike my investigations-as diligent as the condition of the station would permit them to be--were, as I expected, unsuccessful. Not a trace of the lost one" could I find, and I returned, sorrowing, to my companions. They had recovered their composure (Mrs. Smith having coloured at the time, as though she had just been convicted of larceny, instead of being herself the sufferer), and the purchase had been completed, Miss Smith chancing to have her own purse with her; so I escorted them into the

and then strolled out to observe what was going forward, and to have a few minutes' conversation with the station-master on the subject of our loss.

The chief of the staff at K-had originally been a London detective, and having received an appointment upon this line, his superior intelligence — being unblemished by want of principle or a too devoted attachment to “half-pints” (which so frequently stand in the way of a man's advancement in this rank of life, where his abilities would otherwise have brought him forward)—had raised him to the important position he now occupied. I had been enabled to do him some slight service, and courteous and obliging to a degree at all times—he was particularly so to me. There was something wonderfully fascinating about his reminiscences of detective life; and, when leaving the train at K-, I have not unfrequently paused at the station to listen to some stirring tale of an ingenious capture by himself or his brother-officers. I found him actively employed as usual, and, as I approached him, he raised his hat, and remarked that it was uncommonly warm.

There could be but one opinion on this point, so I endorsed it, and then told him that a friend of mine had been robbed—as we thought of her purse. The stationmaster had already heard of it, and had made inquiries.

“ You are not singular, sir ; another loss has since been reported to me, although we do our best to protect the passengers." And he pointed, as

ladies' room,

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

he spoke, to a staring placard which, headed “ Notice," proceeded to warn passengers to look after their luggage and their pockets on the arrival and departure of trains. “ Will you oblige me with the particulars ?”

I related the incident as shortly as I could : “ That infernal accident was the cause of it all; for the thief, whoever he is, would never have had the chance otherwise." “ To establish that, sir," he replied,

we must

prove

that it could not have been done elsewhere than on the platform. Pray may I ask were you alone in the carriage ?"

“ Alone enough!" I replied, somewhat hastily, for I thought the supposition absurd, “ in one of your economical halves. At least," I added, as the vision of the sound sleeper in the white hat rose to my recollection, " there was another man sitting next to Mrs. Smith, but he was asleep the whole time.”

The ex-detective had naturally bright eyes, but at that moment they gleamed with such a lustre, and yet with a subdued merry twinkle, that simultaneously the whole truth Hashed upon me. My first impression was one of intense disgust at being so effectually done; my second, a burning desire to put our ci-devant friend in the white hat in rapid communication with a metropolitan magistrate.

“We can at least find him," I said, moving off.

“ But not the purse. No,” returned the station-master, shaking his head, “I take it that he is probably too old a hand not to have disposed of everything but the cash long before this.”

He mused for a few seconds.

“ There is one chance, slight enough it's true, and yet these old birds sometimes run it too fine. You say, sir, the young lady has her purse with her?"

I nodded.
“They will find it necessary to take fresh tickets ?"

“I presume so," I replied, " the others having disappeared with the rest of the contents."

“Good. Then, sir,” looking at the clock, “as the engine will be here in three minutes, will

you

be so kind as to see your friends get their tickets, and then take care that the young lady puts them into her purse --and that you resume (if possible) your old places, the ladies simply exchanging seats. If the fish bites, let him gorge the bait well, and then ---strike ! And mind—I know these fellows-strike sharply. The rest I leave to you. Good morning, sir.”

And before I could reply, the ex-detective was off.

I made my way back to the ladies quickly, and found them about proceeding to take their tickets ; so we walked at once into the office, Miss Smith having her purse in her hand. “ Two return firsts to town" were ordered, received, paid for, and by my advice deposited in the portemonnaie, which I also exhorted the young lady to return to her pocket, and then to keep close to my left hand. As we turned to quit the building, for the moment I fancied I saw the upper portion of a white hatand a white hat of which I knew something-receding from the window into obscurity; but when we emerged upon the platform it was certainly not visible. At the same instant the harsh scream of the approaching engine warned those who had not taken their places that it was high

« PreviousContinue »