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The Iron Horse

The Iron Horse

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


Talk of earthquakes! not all the earthquakes that have rumbled in Ecuador or toppled over the spires and dwellings of Peru could compare, in the matter of dogged pertinacity, with that earthquake which diurnally and hourly shocked...
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  Talk of earthquakes! not all the earthquakes that have rumbled inEcuador or toppled over the spires and dwellings of Peru could compare,in the matter of dogged pertinacity, with that earthquake whichdiurnally and hourly shocked little Gertie's dwelling, quivered thewhite dimity curtains of little Gertie's bed and shook little Gertie'sframe. A graceful, rounded little frame it was; yet strong, and firmlyknit--perhaps in consequence of its having been from infancy soconstantly and so well shaken together.

  Her neat little body was surmounted by a head which no sculptor insearch of an antique model would have chosen. Gertie's profile was notGrecian; her features were not classic--but they were comely, and rosy,and so sweet that most people wanted to kiss them, and many people did.Gertie did not object. Probably, being only six, she imagined that thiswas the ordinary and natural method of salutation. Yet it wasobservable that the child did not reciprocate kisses except in one ortwo special cases. She had evidently a mind of her own, a fact whichwas displayed most strikingly, in the passionate manner in which shereciprocated the embraces of John Marrot, her father, when that largehairy individual came in of an evening, and, catching her in his longarms, pressed her little body to his damp pilot-cloth-coated breast andher chubby face to his oily, smoke-and-soot begrimed countenance,forgetful for the moment of the remonstrance from his wife that was sureto follow:--

  "Now then, John, there you go again. You ain't got no more power ofsubjewin' your feelings than one of your own ingines, w'ich is theschreechin'ist, fizzin'ist, crashin'ist, bustin' things I ever 'ad themisfortune to 'ave to do with. There's a clean frock just put on thismornin' only fit for the wash-tub now?"

  But John was an easy-going man. He was mild, kind, sedate,undemonstrative by nature, and looked upon slight matrimonial breezes asbeing good for the health. It was only Gertie who could draw him intodemonstrations of feeling such as we have described, and, as we havesaid, she always reciprocated them violently, increasing thereby thewash-tub necessity tenfold.

  It would have been strange indeed if John Marrot could have been muchput about by a small matrimonial breeze, seeing that his life was spentin riding on an iron monster with white-hot lungs and boiling bowelswhich carried him through space day and night at the rate of fifty milesan hour! This, by the way, brings us back to our text--earthquakes.

  Gertie's house--or Gertie's father's house, if you prefer it--stoodclose to the embankment of one of our great arterial railways--which ofthem, for reasons best known to ourself, we don't intend to tell, but,for the reader's comfort, we shall call it the Grand National TrunkRailway. So close did the house stand to the embankment that timidfemale passengers were known occasionally to scream as they approachedit, under the impression that the train had left the rails and was aboutto dash into it--an impression which was enhanced and somewhat justifiedby the circumstance that the house stood with one of its corners;instead of its side, front, or back; towards the line; thereby inducinga sudden sensation of wrongness in the breasts of the twenty thousandpassengers who swept past it daily. The extreme edge of its mostprotruding stone was exactly three yards four inches--by measurement--from the left rail of the down line.

  Need we say more to account for the perpetual state of earthquakedom, inwhich that house was involved?

  But the tremors and shocks to which it was exposed--by night and byday--was not all it had to bear. In certain directions of the wind itwas intermittently enveloped in clouds of mingled soot and steam, and,being situated at a curve on the line where signalling became imminentlyneedful, it was exposed to all the varied horrors of the whistle fromthe sharp screech of interrogation to the successive bursts ofexasperation, or the prolonged and deadly yell of intimidation, with allthe intermediate modulations--so that, what with the tremors, andshocks, and crashes, and shrieks, and thunderous roar of trains,Gertie's father's house maintained an upright front in circumstancesthat might have been equalled but could not have been surpassed by thoseof the Eddystone Lighthouse in the wildest of winter storms, while itexcelled that celebrated building in this, that it faced a storm whichknew no calm, but raged furiously all the year round.

  John Marrot was an engine-driver on the Grand National Trunk Railway.This is equivalent to saying that he was a steady, sober, trustworthyman. None but men of the best character are nowadays put in soresponsible a position. Nearly all the drivers on the line were of thiskind--some better than others, no doubt, but all good. Of course thereare exceptions to every rule. As in the best regulated familiesaccidents will happen, so, on the best conducted lines, an occasionalblack sheep will get among the drivers, but this is the exception thatproves the rule. The rule in the Grand National Trunk Railway was--getthe best drivers and pay them well. The same may be said of thefiremen, whose ambition was ultimately to drive the iron chargers whichthey fed. Besides being all that we have said, John was a big, burly,soft-hearted, hard-headed man, who knew that two and two in ordinarycircumstances made four, and who didn't require to be told that his leftfoot was not his right one.

  It was generally supposed that John Marrot had no nerves, and that hismuscles had imbibed some of the iron of which his engine was composed.This was a mistake, though there was some truth in both suppositions.

  John's family consisted of himself when at home, which, although often,was never for long; his wife--fat and fair, capable of being roused,but, on the whole, a good, sensible, loving woman; his eldest daughter,Lucy or Loo--nineteen, dark, pretty, and amiable; his youngest daughter,Gertrude, _alias_ Gertie--six, sunny and serious, at least as serious aswas possible for one so young, so innocent, so healthy, and so happy asshe; his son Bob, aged twelve, who was a lamp-boy at the great stationnot far off, and of whom it may be briefly said that he was "no betterthan he should be," and, lastly, the baby--not yet at the walking periodof life, with a round head, round body, round eyes, and a round dozen atleast--if not more--of hairs standing straight up on the top of his baldpate, suggesting the idea that he must at some period of his life havebeen singed by a passing locomotive--an event not by any means beyondthe bounds of possibility, for it may be written, with more truth ofthis, than of any other infant, that he had been born and nurtured amidthunder, smoke, and blazes.

  As might have been expected in the circumstances, he was a powerfulbaby. We cannot afford space for a full description, but it would bewrong to omit mention of the strength of his lungs. The imitativetendency of children is proverbial. Clearly the locomotive was babyMarrot's pattern in many things. No infant that ever drew breathequalled this one at a yell. There was absolutely a touch of sublimityin the sound of the duet--frequently heard--when baby chanced to beperforming a solo and his father's engine went shrieking past with arunning accompaniment! It is a disputed point to this day which of thetwo beat the other; and it is an admitted fact that nothing else couldequal either.

  There were two other inmates of John Marrot's house--not members of thefamily. One was his fireman, William Garvie, who lodged with him, theother a small servant or maid-of-all-work who led a rugged existence,but appeared to enjoy it, although it kept her thin. Her name was AnnStocks, familiarly known as Nanny.

  We are thus particular in describing the engine-driver's householdbecause, apart from other reasons, a group of human beings who couldlive, and thrive, and eat, and sleep, and love, and learn, and so forth,in such circumstances is noteworthy.

  It was quite a treat--believe it, reader--to see little Gertie and thebaby slumber while the engines were apparently having "a night of it"outside! Come with us and behold. It is 10:30 p.m. Father is crossingcountry on the limited mail at any pace you choose between fifty andeighty miles an hour, time having been lost at the last station, owingto the unaccountable disappearance of a first-class passenger, and timehaving to be made up by fair means or otherwise. His mate stands besidehim. In the family mansion pretty Loo sleeps like a "good angel," asshe is, in a small room farthest from the corner next the line, but withher we have nothing to do at present. Nanny, also sound asleep, lies insome place of profound obscurity among the coals in the lower regions ofthe house, laying in that store of health and vigour which will enableher to face the rugged features of the following day. We dismiss her,also, with the hope that she may survive the coal-dust and the lack ofoxygen, and turn to the chief room of the house--the kitchen, parlour,dining-room, drawing-room, nursery, and family bedroom all in one.Engine-drivers are not always so badly off for space in their domiciles,but circumstances which are not worth mentioning have led John Marrot toput up with little. In this apartment, which is wonderfully clean andneat, there are two box-beds and a sort of crib. Baby sleeps--as onlybabies can--in perfect bliss in the crib; Gertie slumbers with herupturned sweet little face shaded by the white dimity curtains in onebed; Mrs Molly Marrot snores like a grampus in the other. It is a widebed, let deep into the wall, as it were, and Mrs M's red countenancelooms over the counterpane like the setting sun over a winter fog-bank.

  Hark? A rumble in the far distance--ominous and low at first, butrapidly increasing to the tones of distant thunder. It is the nightexpress for the North--going at fifty miles an hour. At such a rate ofspeed it might go right round the world in twenty-one days! While yetdistant the whistle is heard, shrill, threatening, and prolonged.Louder and louder; it is nearing the curve now and the earth trembles--the house trembles too, but Gertie's parted lips breathe as softly asbefore; baby's eyes are as tight and his entire frame as still as whenhe first fell asleep. Mrs Marrot, too, maintains the monotony of hersnore. Round the curve it comes at last, hammer and tongs, thunderinglike Olympus, and yelling like an iron fiend. The earthquake is "on!"The embankment shudders; the house quivers; the doors, windows, cups,saucers, and pans rattle. Outside, all the sledge-hammers and anvils inVulcan's smithy are banging an _obbligato_ accompaniment to the hissingof all the serpents that Saint Patrick drove out of Ireland as theexpress comes up; still Gertie's rest is unbroken. She does indeed givea slight smile and turn her head on the other side, as if she had hearda pleasant whisper, but nothing more. Baby, too, vents a prolonged sighbefore plunging into a profounder depth of repose. Mrs Marrot gives adeprecatory grunt between snores, but it is merely a complimentary"Hallo! 's that you?" sort of question which requires no answer.

  As the rushing storm goes by a timid and wakeful passenger happens tolower the window and look out. He sees the house. "It's all over?" arehis last words as he falls back in his seat and covers his face with hishands. He soon breathes more freely on finding that it is not all over,but fifteen or twenty miles lie between him and the house he expected toannihilate, before his nervous system has quite recovered its tone.

  This, reader, is a mere sample of the visitations by which that familywas perpetually affected, though not afflicted. Sometimes the rushingmasses were heavy goods trains, which produced less fuss, but more ofearthquake. At other times red lights, intimating equally danger anddelay, brought trains to a stand close to the house, and kept themhissing and yelling there as if querulously impatient to get on. Theuproar reached its culminating point about 12:45, on the night of whichwe write, when two trains from opposite directions were signalled towait, which they did precisely opposite John Marrot's windows, and therekept up such a riot of sound as feeble language is impotent to convey.To the accustomed ears the whistle and clank of a checked and angrypilot-engine might have been discerned amid the hullabaloo; but to onewhose experience in such matters was small, it might have seemed asthough six or seven mad engines were sitting up on end, like monsterrabbits on a bank, pawing the air and screaming out their hearts in thewild delirium of unlimited power and ungovernable fury. Still, althoughthey moved a little, the sleepers did not awake--so potent is the forceof habit! However, it did not last long. The red lights removed theirban, the white lights said "Come on," the monster rabbits gave a finalsnort of satisfaction and went away--each with its tail of live-stock,or minerals, or goods, or human beings, trailing behind it.

  The temporary silence round the house was very intense, as may well bebelieved--so much so that the heavy foot-fall of a man in the bypaththat led to it sounded quite intrusive.

  He was a tall broad-shouldered man in a large pilot coat, cap and boots,and appeared to walk somewhat lame as he approached the door. He triedthe handle. It was locked, of course.

  "I thought so," he muttered in a low bass voice; "so much for a badmemory."

  He rapped twice on the door, loudly, with his knuckles and then kickedit with his boot. Vain hope! If a burglar with a sledge-hammer haddriven the door in, he would have failed to tickle the drum of any earthere. The man evidently was aware of this, for, changing his plan, hewent round to a back window on the ground-floor, and opened it at thetop with some difficulty. Peeping in he gazed for some time intently,and then exclaimed under his breath, "Ha! it's open by good luck."Gathering a handful of gravel, he threw it into the house withconsiderable force.

  The result proved that he had not aimed at random, for the showerentered the open door of Nanny's sleeping-cellar and fell smartly on herface.

  It is well-known that sailors, although capable of slumbering throughloud and continuous noises, can be awakened by the slightest touch, solikewise Nanny. On receiving the shower of gravel she incontinentlyburied her head in the blankets, drew an empty coal-scuttle over hershoulders and began to shout thieves! and murder! at the top of hervoice. Having taken such pains to muffle it, of course no one heard hercries. The man, if a burglar, had evidently a patient philosophicalturn of mind, for he calmly waited till the damsel was exhausted, andwhen she at length peeped out to observe the effect of her heroicefforts at self-preservation he said quietly, "Nanny, lass, don't be afool! It's me; open the door; I've gone an' forgot my latch-key."

  "Oh la! master, it ain't you, is it? It ain't thieves and robbers, isit?"

  "No, no. Open the door like a good girl."

  "And it ain't an accident, is it?" continued Nanny partially dressing inhaste. "Oh, I knows it's a accident, Missus always prophesied as aaccident would come to pass some day, which has come true. You're notmaimed, master?"

  "No, no; be quick, girl!"

  "Nor Willum ain't maimed, is he? He ain't dead? Oh _don't_ say Willumis--"

  "Bill Garvie's all right," said the engine-driver, as he brushed pastthe girl and went up-stairs.

  Now, although Mrs Marrot's ears were totally deaf to locomotives theywere alert enough to the sound of her husband's voice. When, therefore,he entered the kitchen, he found her standing on the floor with an ampleshawl thrown round her.

  "Nothing wrong?" she inquired anxiously.

  "Nothing, Molly, my dear, only I got a slight bruise on the leg in theengine-shed to-day, and I had to go up an' show it to the doctor, d'yesee, before comin' home, which has made me later than usual."

  "Are you _sure_ it's not a back hurt, father?" asked Loo, coming in atthe moment--also enveloped in a shawl, and looking anxious.

  "Sure? ay, I'm sure enough; it's only a scratch. See here."

  Saying this he removed one of his boots, and pulling up his trousersdisplayed a bandaged leg.

  "Well, but we can't see through the bandages, you know," said MrsMarrot.

  "Let me take them off, father, and I'll replace--"

  "Take 'em off!" exclaimed John, pulling down the leg of his trouser andrising with a laugh. "No, no, Loo; why, it's only just bin done up allsnug by the doctor, who'd kick up a pretty shindy if he found I hadundid it. There's one good will come of it anyhow, I shall have a dayor two in the house with you all; for the doctor said I must give it ashort rest. So, off to bed again, Loo. This is not an hour for arespectable young woman to be wanderin' about in her night-dress. Awaywith you!"

  "Was any one else hurt, father?" said Loo. She asked the questionanxiously, but there was a slight flush on her cheek and a peculiarsmile which betrayed some hidden feeling.

  "No one else," returned her father. "I tell 'ee it wasn't an accidentat all--it was only a engine that brushed up agin me as I was comin' outo' the shed. That's all; so I just came home and left Will Garvie tolook after our engine. There, run away."

  Loo smiled, nodded and disappeared, followed by Mrs Marrot, who went,like a sensible woman, to see that her alarmed domestic was all right.While she was away John went to the crib and kissed the rosy cheek ofhis sleeping boy. Then he bent over the bed with the white dimitycurtains to Miss Gertie's forehead, for which purpose he had to remove amass of curly hair with his big brown hand.

  "Bless you, my darling," he said in silent speech, "you came near bein'fatherless this night--nearer than you ever was before." He kissed heragain tenderly, and a fervent "thank the Lord!" rose from his heart toheaven.

  In less than half-an-hour after this the engine-driver's family sankinto profound repose, serenaded by the music of a mineral train from theblack country, which rushed laboriously past their dwelling like anover-weighted thunderbolt.