Seeing People Off by Max Beerbohm

Story type: Essay

I am not good at it. To do it well seems to me one of the most difficult things in the world, and probably seems so to you, too.

To see a friend off from Waterloo to Vauxhall were easy enough. But we are never called on to perform that small feat. It is only when a friend is going on a longish journey, and will be absent for a longish time, that we turn up at the railway station. The dearer the friend, and the longer the journey, and the longer the likely absence, the earlier do we turn up, and the more lamentably do we fail. Our failure is in exact ratio to the seriousness of the occasion, and to the depth of our feeling.

In a room, or even on a door-step, we can make the farewell quite worthily. We can express in our faces the genuine sorrow we feel. Nor do words fail us. There is no awkwardness, no restraint, on either side. The thread of our intimacy has not been snapped. The leave- taking is an ideal one. Why not, then, leave the leave-taking at that? Always, departing friends implore us not to bother to come to the railway station next morning. Always, we are deaf to these entreaties, knowing them to be not quite sincere. The departing friends would think it very odd of us if we took them at their word. Besides, they really do want to see us again. And that wish is heartily reciprocated. We duly turn up. And then, oh then, what a gulf yawns! We stretch our arms vainly across it. We have utterly lost touch. We have nothing at all to say. We gaze at each other as dumb animals gaze at human beings. We `make conversation’–and such conversation! We know that these are the friends from whom we parted overnight. They know that we have not altered. Yet, on the surface, everything is different; and the tension is such that we only long for the guard to blow his whistle and put an end to the farce.

See also  Discontent The Motive Power Of Progress by Arthur Brisbane

On a cold grey morning of last week I duly turned up at Euston, to see off an old friend who was starting for America.

Overnight, we had given him a farewell dinner, in which sadness was well mingled with festivity. Years probably would elapse before his return. Some of us might never see him again. Not ignoring the shadow of the future, we gaily celebrated the past. We were as thankful to have known our guest as we were grieved to lose him; and both these emotions were made evident. It was a perfect farewell.

And now, here we were, stiff and self-conscious on the platform; and, framed in the window of the railway-carriage, was the face of our friend; but it was as the face of a stranger–a stranger anxious to please, an appealing stranger, an awkward stranger. `Have you got everything?’ asked one of us, breaking a silence. `Yes, everything,’ said our friend, with a pleasant nod. `Everything,’ he repeated, with the emphasis of an empty brain. `You’ll be able to lunch on the train,’ said I, though this prophecy had already been made more than once. `Oh yes,’ he said with conviction. He added that the train went straight through to Liverpool. This fact seemed to strike us as rather odd. We exchanged glances. `Doesn’t it stop at Crewe?’ asked one of us. `No,’ said our friend, briefly. He seemed almost disagreeable. There was a long pause. One of us, with a nod and a forced smile at the traveller, said `Well!’ The nod, the smile, and the unmeaning monosyllable, were returned conscientiously. Another pause was broken by one of us with a fit of coughing. It was an obviously assumed fit, but it served to pass the time. The bustle of the platform was unabated. There was no sign of the train’s departure. Release–ours, and our friend’s–was not yet.

See also  Waves Of The Great South Seas by Juliana Horatia Ewing

My wandering eye alighted on a rather portly middle-aged man who was talking earnestly from the platform to a young lady at the next window but one to ours. His fine profile was vaguely familiar to me. The young lady was evidently American, and he was evidently English; otherwise I should have guessed from his impressive air that he was her father. I wished I could hear what he was saying. I was sure he was giving the very best advice; and the strong tenderness of his gaze was really beautiful. He seemed magnetic, as he poured out his final injunctions. I could feel something of his magnetism even where I stood. And the magnetism, like the profile, was vaguely familiar to me. Where had I experienced it?

In a flash I remembered. The man was Hubert le Ros. But how changed since last I saw him! That was seven or eight years ago, in the Strand. He was then (as usual) out of an engagement, and borrowed half-a-crown. It seemed a privilege to lend anything to him. He was always magnetic. And why his magnetism had never made him successful on the London stage was always a mystery to me. He was an excellent actor, and a man of sober habit. But, like many others of his kind, Hubert le Ros (I do not, of course, give the actual name by which he was known) drifted seedily away into the provinces; and I, like every one else, ceased to remember him.

It was strange to see him, after all these years, here on the platform of Euston, looking so prosperous and solid. It was not only the flesh that he had put on, but also the clothes, that made him hard to recognise. In the old days, an imitation fur coat had seemed to be as integral a part of him as were his ill-shorn lantern jaws. But now his costume was a model of rich and sombre moderation, drawing, not calling, attention to itself. He looked like a banker. Any one would have been proud to be seen off by him.

See also  Two Old Men By Leo Tolstoy

`Stand back, please.’ The train was about to start, and I waved farewell to my friend. Le Ros did not stand back. He stood clasping in both hands the hands of the young American. `Stand back, sir, please!’ He obeyed, but quickly darted forward again to whisper some final word. I think there were tears in her eyes. There certainly were tears in his when, at length, having watched the train out of sight, he turned round. He seemed, nevertheless, delighted to see me. He asked me where I had been hiding all these years; and simultaneously repaid me the half-crown as though it had been borrowed yesterday. He linked his arm in mine, and walked me slowly along the platform, saying with what pleasure he read my dramatic criticisms every Saturday.

I told him, in return, how much he was missed on the stage. `Ah, yes,’ he said, `I never act on the stage nowadays.’ He laid some emphasis on the word `stage,’ and I asked him where, then, he did act. `On the platform,’ he answered. `You mean,’ said I, `that you recite at concerts?’ He smiled. `This,’ he whispered, striking his stick on the ground, `is the platform I mean.’ Had his mysterious prosperity unhinged him? He looked quite sane. I begged him to be more explicit.

`I suppose,’ he said presently, giving me a light for the cigar which he had offered me, `you have been seeing a friend off?’ I assented. He asked me what I supposed he had been doing. I said that I had watched him doing the same thing. `No,’ he said gravely. `That lady was not a friend of mine. I met her for the first time this morning, less than half an hour ago, here,’ and again he struck the platform with his stick.

See also  Idler 044 [No. 44: The use of memory considered] by Samuel Johnson

I confessed that I was bewildered. He smiled. `You may,’ he said, `have heard of the Anglo-American Social Bureau?’ I had not. He explained to me that of the thousands of Americans who annually pass through England there are many hundreds who have no English friends. In the old days they used to bring letters of introduction. But the English are so inhospitable that these letters are hardly worth the paper they are written on. `Thus,’ said Le Ros, `the A.A.S.B. supplies a long-felt want. Americans are a sociable people, and most of them have plenty of money to spend. The A.A.S.B. supplies them with English friends. Fifty per cent. of the fees is paid over to the friends. The other fifty is retained by the A.A.S.B. I am not, alas, a director. If I were, I should be a very rich man indeed. I am only an employe’. But even so I do very well. I am one of the seers-off.’

Again I asked for enlightenment. `Many Americans,’ he said, `cannot afford to keep friends in England. But they can all afford to be seen off. The fee is only five pounds (twenty-five dollars) for a single traveller; and eight pounds (forty dollars) for a party of two or more. They send that in to the Bureau, giving the date of their departure, and a description by which the seer-off can identify them on the platform. And then–well, then they are seen off.’

`But is it worth it?’ I exclaimed. `Of course it is worth it,’ said Le Ros. `It prevents them from feeling “out of it.” It earns them the respect of the guard. It saves them from being despised by their fellow-passengers–the people who are going to be on the boat. It gives them a footing for the whole voyage. Besides, it is a great pleasure in itself. You saw me seeing that young lady off. Didn’t you think I did it beautifully?’ `Beautifully,’ I admitted. `I envied you. There was I–‘ `Yes, I can imagine. There were you, shuffling from foot to foot, staring blankly at your friend, trying to make conversation. I know. That’s how I used to be myself, before I studied, and went into the thing professionally. I don’t say I’m perfect yet. I’m still a martyr to platform fright. A railway station is the most difficult of all places to act in, as you have discovered for yourself.’ `But,’ I said with resentment, `I wasn’t trying to act. I really felt.’ `So did I, my boy,’ said Le Ros. `You can’t act without feeling. What’s his name, the Frenchman–Diderot, yes–said you could; but what did he know about it? Didn’t you see those tears in my eyes when the train started? I hadn’t forced them. I tell you I was moved. So were you, I dare say. But you couldn’t have pumped up a tear to prove it. You can’t express your feelings. In other words, you can’t act. At any rate,’ he added kindly, `not in a railway station.’ `Teach me!’ I cried. He looked thoughtfully at me. `Well,’ he said at length, `the seeing-off season is practically over. Yes, I’ll give you a course. I have a good many pupils on hand already; but yes,’ he said, consulting an ornate note-book, `I could give you an hour on Tuesdays and Fridays.’

See also  To The Editor Of The Sun by Irvin S Cobb

His terms, I confess, are rather high. But I don’t grudge the investment.

Leave a Reply 1

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ajit Mancha

Ajit Mancha

Sweet remembrances from my college days when our English professor took this prose. He including the class was taken into the heart of it. I cannot forget that experiance till date.