The Owl Train by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayAcross the cold moonlit landscapes, while good folk are at home curling their toes in the warm bottom of the bed, the Owl trains rumble with a gentle dro …

Story type: Essay

Across the cold moonlit landscapes, while good folk are at home curling their toes in the warm bottom of the bed, the Owl trains rumble with a gentle drone, neither fast nor slow.

There are several Owl trains with which we have been familiar. One, rather aristocratic of its kind, is the caravan of sleeping cars that leaves New York at midnight and deposits hustling business men of the most aggressive type at the South Station, Boston. After a dissolute progress full of incredible jerks and jolts these pilgrims reach this dampest, darkest, and most Arctic of all terminals about the time the morning codfish begins to warm his bosom on the gridirons of the sacred city. Another, a terrible nocturnal prowler, slips darkly away from Albany about 1 A. M., and rambles disconsolately and with shrill wailings along the West Shore line. Below the grim Palisades of the Hudson it wakes painful echoes. Its first six units, as far as one can see in the dark, are blind express cars, containing milk cans and coffins. We once boarded it at Kingston, and after uneasy slumber across two facing seats found ourself impaled upon Weehawken three hours later. There one treads dubiously upon a ferryboat in the fog and brume of dawn, ungluing eyelids in the bleak dividing pressure of the river breeze.

But the Owl train we propose to celebrate is the vehicle that departs modestly from the crypt of the Pennsylvania Station in New York at half-past midnight and emits blood-shot wanderers at West Philadelphia at 3:16 in the morning. The railroad company, which thinks these problems out with nice care, lulls the passengers into unconsciousness of their woes not only by a gentle and even gait, a progress almost tender in its carefully modulated repression of speed, but also by keeping the cars at such an amazing heat that the victims promptly fade into a swoon. Nowhere will you see a more complete abandonment to the wild postures of fatigue and despair than in the pathetic sprawl of these human forms upon the simmering plush settees. A hot eddy of some varnish-tinctured vapour–certainly not air–rises from under the seats and wraps the traveller in a nightmarish trance. Occasionally he starts wildly from his dream and glares frightfully through the misted pane. It is the custom of the trainmen, who tiptoe softly through the cars, never to disturb their clients by calling out the names of stations. When New Brunswick is reached many think that they have arrived at West Philadelphia, or (worse still) have been carried on to Wilmington. They rush desperately to the bracing chill of the platform to learn where they are. There is a mood of mystery about this Owl of ours. The trainmen take a quaint delight in keeping the actual whereabouts of the caravan a merciful secret.

Oddly assorted people appear on this train. Occasional haughty revellers, in evening dress and opera capes, appear among the humbler voyagers. For a time they stay on their dignity: sit bravely upright and talk with apparent intelligence. Then the drowsy poison of that stifled atmosphere overcomes them, too, and they fall into the weakness of their brethren. They turn over the opposing seat, elevate their nobler shins, and droop languid heads over the ticklish plush chair-back. Strange aliens lie spread over the seats. Nowhere will you see so many faces of curious foreign carving. It seems as though many desperate exiles, who never travel by day, use the Owl for moving obscurely from city to city. This particular train is bound south to Washington, and at least half its tenants are citizens of colour. Even the endless gayety of our dusky brother is not proof against the venomous exhaustion of that boxed-in suffocation. The ladies of his race are comfortably prepared for the hardships of the route. They wrap themselves in huge fur coats and all have sofa cushions to recline on. Even in an all-night session of Congress you will hardly note so complete an abandonment of disillusion, weariness, and cynical despair as is written upon the blank faces all down the aisle. Even the will-power of a George Creel or a Will H. Hays would droop before this three-hour ordeal. Professor Einstein, who talks so delightfully of discarding Time and Space, might here reconsider his theories if he brooded, baking gradually upward, on the hot green plush.

This genial Owl is not supposed to stop at North Philadelphia, but it always does. By this time Philadelphia passengers are awake and gathered in the cold vestibules, panting for escape. Some of them, against the rules of the train, manage to escape on the North Philadelphia platform. The rest, standing huddled over the swaying couplings, find the leisurely transit to West Philadelphia as long as the other segments of the ride put together. Stoically, and beyond the power of words, they lean on one another. At last the train slides down a grade. In the dark and picturesque tunnel of the West Philadelphia station, through thick mists of steam where the glow of the fire box paints the fog a golden rose, they grope and find the ancient stairs. Then they stagger off to seek a lonely car or a night-hawk taxi.

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