A Proposal On The Elevated by Jacob A Riis

Story type: Literature

The sleeper on the 3.35 A.M. elevated train from the Harlem bridge was awake for once. The sleeper is the last car in the train, and has its own set that snores nightly in the same seats, grunts with the fixed inhospitality of the commuter at the intrusion of a stranger, and is on terms with Conrad, the German conductor, who knows each one of his passengers and wakes him up at his station. The sleeper is unique. It is run for the benefit of those who ride in it, not for the company’s. It not only puts them off properly; it waits for them, if they are not there. The conductor knows that they will come. They are men, mostly, with small homes beyond the bridge, whose work takes them down town to the markets, the Post-office, and the busy marts of the city long before cockcrow. The day begins in New York at all hours.

Usually the sleeper is all that its name implies, but this morning it was as far from it as could be. A party of young people, fresh from a neighboring hop, had come on board and filled the rear end of the car. Their feet tripped yet to the dance, and snatches of the latest waltz floated through the train between peals of laughter and little girlish shrieks. The regulars glared, discontented, in strange seats, unable to go to sleep. Only the railroad yardmen dropped off promptly as they came in. Theirs was the shortest ride, and they could least afford to lose time. Two old Irishmen, flanked by their dinner-pails, gravely discussed the Henry George campaign.

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Across the passage sat a group of three apart–a young man, a girl, and a little elderly woman with lines of care and hard work in her patient face. She guarded carefully three umbrellas, a very old and faded one, and two that were new and of silk, which she held in her lap, though it had not rained for a month. He was a likely young fellow, tall and straight, with the thoughtful eye of a student. His dark hair fell nearly to his shoulders, and his coat had a foreign cut. The girl was a typical child of the city, slight and graceful of form, dressed in good taste, and with a bright, winning face. The two chatted confidentially together, forgetful of all else, while mamma, between them, nodded sleepily in her seat.

A sudden burst of white light flooded the car.

“Hey! Ninety-ninth Street!” called the conductor, and rattled the door. The railroad men tumbled out pell-mell, all but one. Conrad shook him, and he went out mechanically, blinking his eyes.

“Eighty-ninth next!” from the doorway.

The laughter at the rear end of the car had died out. The young people, in a quieter mood, were humming a popular love-song. Presently above the rest rose a clear tenor:–

Oh, promise me that some day you and I
Will take our love together to some sky
Where we can be alone and faith renew–

The clatter of the train as it flew over a switch drowned the rest. When the last wheel had banged upon the frog, I heard the young student’s voice, in the soft accents of southern Europe:–

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“Wenn ich in Wien war–” He was telling her of his home and his people in the language of his childhood. I glanced across. She sat listening with kindling eyes. Mamma slumbered sweetly; her worn old hands clutched unconsciously the umbrellas in her lap. The two Irishmen, having settled the campaign, had dropped to sleep, too. In the crowded car the two were alone. His hand sought hers and met it halfway.

“Forty-seventh!” There was a clatter of tin cans below. The contingent of milkmen scrambled out of their seats and off for the depot. In the lull that followed their going, the tenor rose from the last seat:–

Those first sweet violets of early spring,
Which come in whispers, thrill us both, and sing
Of love unspeakable that is to be,
Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!

The two young people faced each other. He had thrown his hat upon the seat beside him and held her hand fast, gesticulating with his free hand as he spoke rapidly, eloquently, eagerly of his prospects and his hopes. Her own toyed nervously with his coat-lapel, twisting and twirling a button as he went on. What he said might have been heard to the other end of the car, had there been anybody to listen. He was to live here always; his uncle would open a business in New York, of which he was to have charge, when he had learned to know the country and its people. It would not be long now, and then–and then–

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“Twenty-third Street!”

There was a long stop after the levy for the ferries had left. The conductor went out on the platform and consulted with the ticket-chopper. He was scrutinizing his watch for the second time, when the faint jingle of an east-bound car was heard.

“Here she comes!” said the ticket-chopper. A shout, and a man bounded up the steps, three at a time. It was an engineer who, to make connection with his locomotive at Chatham Square, must catch that train.

“Hullo, Conrad! Nearly missed you,” he said as he jumped on the car, breathless.

“All right, Jack.” And the conductor jerked the bell-rope. “You made it, though.” The train sped on.

Two lives, heretofore running apart, were hastening to a union. The lovers had seen nothing, heard nothing but each other. His eyes burned as hers met his and fell before them. His head bent lower until his face almost touched hers. His dark hair lay against her blond curls. The ostrich-feather on her hat swept his shoulder.

“Moegtest Du mich haben?” he entreated.

Above the grinding of the wheels as the train slowed up for the station a block ahead, pleaded the tenor:–

Oh, promise me that you will take my hand,
The most unworthy in this lonely land–

Did she speak? Her face was hidden, but the blond curls moved with a nod so slight that only a lover’s eye could see it. He seized her disengaged hand. The conductor stuck his head into the car.

“Fourteenth Street!”

A squad of stout, florid men with butchers’ aprons started for the door. The girl arose hastily.

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“Mamma!” she called, “steh’ auf! Es ist Fourteenth Street.”

The little woman woke up, gathered the umbrellas in her arms, and bustled after the marketmen, her daughter leading the way. He sat as one dreaming.

“Ach!” he sighed, and ran his hand through his dark hair, “so rasch!”

And he went out after them.

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