Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Helen Hunt Jackson > Text of Half An Hour In A Railway Station

An essay by Helen Hunt Jackson

Half An Hour In A Railway Station

Title:     Half An Hour In A Railway Station
Author: Helen Hunt Jackson [More Titles by Jackson]

It was one of those bleak and rainy days which mark the coming of spring on New England sea-shores. The rain felt and looked as if it might at any minute become hail or snow; the air pricked like needles when it blew against flesh. Yet the huge railway station was as full of people as ever. One could see no difference between this dreariest of days and the sunniest, so far as the crowd was concerned, except that fewer of the people wore fine clothes; perhaps, also, that their faces looked a little more sombre and weary than usual.

There is no place in the world where human nature shows to such sad disadvantage as in waiting-rooms at railway stations, especially in the "Ladies' Room." In the "Gentlemen's Room" there is less of that ghastly, apathetic silence which seems only explainable as an interval between two terrible catastrophes. Shall we go so far as to confess that even the unsightly spittoons, and the uncleanly and loquacious fellowship resulting from their common use, seem here, for the moment, redeemed from a little of their abominableness,--simply because almost any action is better than utter inaction, and any thing which makes the joyless, taciturn American speak to his fellow whom he does not know, is for the time being a blessing. But in the "Ladies' Room" there is not even a community of interest in a single bad habit, to break the monotone of weary stillness. Who has not felt the very soul writhe within her as she has first crossed the threshold of one of these dismal antechambers of journey? Carpetless, dingy, dusty; two or three low sarcophagi of greenish-gray iron in open spaces, surrounded by blue-lipped women, in different angles and attitudes of awkwardness, trying to keep the soles of their feet in a perpendicular position, to be warmed at what they have been led to believe is a steam-heating apparatus; a few more women, equally listless and weary-looking, standing in equally difficult and awkward positions before a counter, holding pie in one hand, and tea in a cup and saucer in the other, taking alternate mouthfuls of each, and spilling both; the rest wedged bolt upright against the wall in narrow partitioned seats, which only need a length of perforated foot-board in front to make them fit to be patented as the best method of putting whole communities of citizens into the stocks at once. All, feet warmers, pie-eaters, and those who sit in the red-velvet stocks, wear so exactly the same expression of vacuity and fatigue that they might almost be taken for one gigantic and unhappy family connection, on its way to what is called in newspapers "a sad event." The only wonder is that this stiffened, desiccated crowd retains vitality enough to remember the hours at which its several trains depart, and to rise up and shake itself alive and go on board. One is haunted sometimes by the fancy that some day, when the air in the room is unusually bad and the trains are delayed, a curious phenomenon will be seen. The petrifaction will be carried a little farther than usual, and, when the bell rings and the official calls out, "Train made up for Babel, Hinnom, and way stations?" no women will come forth from the "Ladies' Room," no eye will move, no muscle will stir. Husbands and brothers will wait and search vainly for those who should have met them at the station, with bundles of the day's shopping to be carried out; homes will be desolate; and the history of rare fossils and petrifactions will have a novel addition. Or, again, that, if some sudden convulsion of Nature, like those which before now have buried wicked cities and the dwellers in them, were to-day to swallow up the great city of New Sodom in America, and keep it under ground for a few thousand years, nothing in all its circuit would so puzzle the learned archaeologists of A.D. 5873 as the position of the skeletons in these same waiting-rooms of railway stations.

Thinking such thoughts as these, sinking slowly and surely to the level of the place, I waited, on this bleak, rainy day, in just such a "Ladies' Room" as I have described. I sat in the red-velvet stocks, with my eyes fixed on the floor.

"Please, ma'am, won't you buy a basket?" said a cheery little voice. So near me, without my knowing it, had the little tradesman come that I was as startled as if the voice had spoken out of the air just above my head.

He was a sturdy little fellow, ten years old, Irish, dirty, ragged; but he had honest, kind gray eyes, and a smile which ought to have sold more baskets than he could carry. A few kind words unsealed the fountain of his childish confidences. There were four children younger than he; the mother took in washing, and the father, who was a cripple from rheumatism, made these baskets, which he carried about to sell.

"Where do you sell the most?"

"Round the depots. That's the best place."

"But the baskets are rather clumsy to carry. Almost everybody has his hands full, when he sets out on a journey."

"Yis'm; but mostly they doesn't take the baskets. But they gives me a little change," said he, with a smile; half roguish, half sad.

I watched him on in his pathetic pilgrimage round that dreary room, seeking help from that dreary circle of women.

My heart aches to write down here the true record that out of those scores of women only three even smiled or spoke to the little fellow. Only one gave him money. My own sympathies had been so won by his face and manner that I found myself growing hot with resentment as I watched woman after woman wave him off with indifferent or impatient gesture. His face was a face which no mother ought to have been able to see without a thrill of pity and affection. God forgive me! As if any mother ought to be able to see any child, ragged, dirty, poor, seeking help and finding none! But his face was so honest, and brave, and responsive that it added much to the appeal of his poverty.

One woman, young and pretty, came into the room, bringing in her arms a large toy horse, and a little violin. "Oh," I said to myself, "she has a boy of her own, for whom she can buy gifts freely. She will surely give this poor child a penny." He thought so, too; for he went toward her with a more confident manner than he had shown to some of the others. No! She brushed by him impatiently, without a word, and walked to the ticket-office. He stood looking at the violin and the toy horse till she came back to her seat. Then he lifted his eyes to her face again; but she apparently did not see him, and he went away. Ah, she is only half mother who does not see her own child in every child!--her own child's grief in every pain which makes another child weep!

Presently the little basket-boy went out into the great hall. I watched him threading his way in and out among the groups of men. I saw one man--bless him!--pat the little fellow on the head; then I lost sight of him.

After ten minutes he came back into the Ladies' Room, with only one basket in his hand, and a very happy little face. The "sterner sex" had been kinder to him than we. The smile which he gave me in answer to my glad recognition of his good luck was the sunniest sunbeam I have seen on a human face for many a day. He sank down into the red-velvet stocks, and twirled his remaining basket, and swung his shabby little feet, as idle and unconcerned as if he were some rich man's son, waiting for the train to take him home. So much does a little lift help the heart of a child, even of a beggar child. It is a comfort to remember him, with that look on his face, instead of the wistful, pleading one which I saw at first. I left him lying back on the dusty velvet, which no doubt seemed to him unquestionable splendor. In the cars I sat just behind the woman with the toy-horse and the violin. I saw her glance rest lovingly on them many times, as she thought of her boy at home; and I wondered if the little basket-seller had really produced no impression whatever on her heart. I shall remember him long after (if he lives) he is a man!

[The end]
Helen Hunt Jackson's essay: Half An Hour In A Railway Station