My Fellow Travellers by Mary Angela Dickens

The room was the sitting-room of a ladies’ residential flat. There were two people in it—a woman and a girl—ensconced in easy chairs, one on either side of the fire. The woman was the owner of the flat, and the girl had come up with her from the general dining-room after dinner, for coffee and conversation. Coffee was over, and upon the conversation one of those silences had fallen sometimes created by known and accepted differences of opinion.

The girl was leaning forward, gazing into the fire. She had straight features, redeemed from insignificance by the keen intelligence of their expression; but this intelligence in its turn, was rendered almost repellant by the exceeding hardness of its practicality. She looked pale and tired, and as a girl clerk is wont to do in the evening.

The woman also looked weary, as though she, too, had done a hard day’s work. But in everything else the two countenances were sharply contrasted. The woman’s was a strong face, and one that five and forty years of life might easily have rendered grim, but its dominant characteristic was a steady gentleness. The irregular features spoke not merely of intelligence, but of shrewd, well-developed brain power. She was leaning back in her chair, looking absently before her, when the girl spoke suddenly.

“Miss Lanyon,” she said, “I don’t understand you. You are so clever! You ought to be a materialist pure and simple. Your books are splendidly up to date in some ways, yet there is always that sad, old-fashioned, semi-Christian crank in them.”

Apparently Miss Lanyon knew of something less offensive beneath the aggressive opinionativeness of the girlish personality for she answered with an odd little smile. Her voice was brisk and her utterance quick and decided.

“It’s a great affliction to find oneself old-fashioned in these days,” she said. “It is very kind of you not to despise me wholesale, Frances. As to materialism—well, I thought with you once upon a time. Ten years ago I fancy I should have satisfied you, altogether; and very little you would have liked me, if you did but know it.”

The girl answered with a quick exclamation.

“You have been a materialist, then!” she exclaimed. “And you gave up certainties for these vague theories! Well, I must say that astonishes me!”

“I am glad to hear that you are capable of astonishment,” was the quick, quaintly-uttered rejoinder. Then Miss Lanyon paused. She glanced at her companion’s face, and spoke impulsively. “I don’t imagine it will make the slightest impression on you,” she said. “Second-hand experiences are never of the faintest use. But I will tell you of something that happened to me ten years ago. Mind, I don’t say that my present opinions, whatever they may be, are the direct outcome of that experience. Never mind now how opinions develop; you’ll know some day. It simply showed me that materialism, at any rate, wouldn’t do—that there was a vast tract of country which it failed to take into account. Would you like to hear about it?”

Hardly waiting for the girl’s quick assent, leaning back in her chair with something about her whole figure, even in the uncertain light of the shaded lamp a trifle tense, Miss Lanyon began to speak again.

“Ten years ago,” she said “I had not taken to writing books, and was a mistress in the High School at Norwich. I am not an imaginative woman, and in those days I held all the views most eminently qualified to stultifying such a quality. A woman devoid of any spiritual sense, without faith, and without romance, very seldom a pleasant creature. I was a conspicuously unpleasant specimen of the type, I imagine that is to say, I was as hard and self-satisfied as the most advanced woman need wish to be.

“It was the middle of the Christmas term. I had come up to town on a Saturday afternoon on business, and was returning to Norwich on Sunday evening. My train was to leave Liverpool Street at 6.15, and my brother, at whose house I had been staying, considered it his duty to go with me to the station.

“We had no time to spare when we reached Liverpool Street. I had a return ticket, and only a hand-bag by way of luggage, and we went straight through to the platform. I was travelling first class—a favourite extravagance of mine in these days—and we walked up the train to look for a carriage.

“As it was Sunday night, few people were travelling; but, on the other hand, few first-class compartments were provided. We looked into several, only to find that my favourite corners facing the engine were occupied, until we had almost reached the top of the train.

“The third carriage from the engine was a first, but I had noticed two or three people, after glancing into it, hesitate, and then pass down the train. Consequently, I was not surprised to see my brother, who was a few steps in front of me, pass it also, almost without looking into it. I was very much surprised however, when I passed it myself, to see that it was absolutely empty. I stopped, and called to my brother.

“‘Where are your eyes, Edward?’ I said. ‘This carriage is just the thing. It’s empty.’

“He turned back with a kind of vague dissatisfaction on his face. “‘Is it?’ he said. ‘Oh, I suppose it’s all right then.’

“I had opened the door by that time, and, as he still hesitated, I got in. I did not take the corner nearest the door by which I had entered, as one naturally does, but I went instinctively, and without thinking about it, to the other end. I put down my book and umbrella on the seat there, and then my brother got in with my bag. He made no comment on my choice of a seat, and got out again rather quickly.

“‘Awfully stuffy carriage,’ he said.

“A scathing reply was on the tip of my tongue, when I became aware of the approach of a porter with footwarmers, and directed his attention to him.

“‘Put one in here,’ I said. ‘The further end.’

“The man did so. He paused a moment, and put another tin into the carriage, close to the open door.

“‘I suppose he thinks that you are going too,’ I remarked to Edward, as the man moved away.

“He answered rather absently. “‘Yes, I suppose so,’ he said. ‘Are you quite sure—’

“The ringing bell interrupted him, and in another moment the train was moving slowly out of the station. I arranged my possessions to my liking, tucked myself up in my rug, and took up the book with which I intended to beguile the time, looking forward to a fairly pleasant journey.

“My book was one in which I had expected to be considerably interested, and I was rather annoyed when it gradually dawned upon me that it was not absorbing my attention in the least. I hardly seemed to take in, or to care to take in, what I read, and a feeling of vague dissatisfaction, utterly objectless and unreasonable, was stealing in and poisoning my contentment.

“Certainly, the weather was disagreeable. The wind was rising as we got into the country, and it howled and shrieked about the train as it pursued its rapid way. But I am not usually affected by such influences, and it surprised me considerably to think that the contrast between the clamour outside and the dead stillness within the carriage had no power to distract me. I found myself growing actually restless at last, and I thought it was time to concentrate my attention forcibly on my book. I made myself thoroughly comfortable, turning away from the empty carriage towards the window by which I was sitting, and propping one elbow on the ledge.

“I suppose I made myself too comfortable, for I went to sleep. I woke suddenly, opening my eyes with a full consciousness of my surroundings, and, as I did so, I was amazed to think that I must have slept for some time. I was in exactly the same position as that in which I had settled myself to read, and my eyes had opened directly upon the window. The train was evidently passing through some kind of cutting, and in the window the other end of the compartment was distinctly reflected.

“It was that which the reflection showed me that made me realise how heavily I had been sleeping, for it witnessed to the fact that we must have stopped, unknown to me, at a station. The carriage as pictured in the window, was no longer occupied only by myself. In the corner seats, on either side of the other door, were reflected the figures of a man and a woman.

“I did not turn round, partly through that curious notion of courtesy which dictates the ignoring of one’s fellow travellers, partly because there was something rather interesting about the appearance of these particular people, and I was idly pleased to be able to study them by means of their reflections, without being guilty of actually staring at them.

“The corner seat obliquely facing me was occupied by the man. He was reading a newspaper, and only his forehead and the outline of his head were visible to me. He had taken off his hat, and his hair appeared to be fair and crisply curling. His figure was well made, and his pose spoke of self-possession and determination. There was, indeed, something almost excessively determined in the touch with which his hand held his paper. He was a gentleman, evidently, well appointed in every particular.

“It is difficult to account for the impression conveyed by appearance only—especially by an appearance seen merely as a reflection—but it was equally obvious to me that his companion belonged to a somewhat lower social grade.

“She was a girl of about nineteen, very tenderly and prettily made. The profile was charming; the small, delicately-cut features were full of expression. But there was a strained, painfully anxious look about them now, as she leaned forward, apparently talking eagerly to the man, and I found myself regretting that the noise of the train, and the shrieking of the wind—which had increased extraordinarily—should prevent my catching even the faintest sound of her voice. Arguing from something unusually dainty about her attire, from something essentially un-English about her face, and from the rapid and plentiful gestures with which she emphasised her speech, I settled in my own mind that she was French.

“I was watching her with a sense of growing fascination, when the conditions outside suddenly changed. The window ceased to act as a reflector. In place of the picture at which I had been looking the lights of a station flashed, and the train came to a standstill.

“The carriage had grown bitterly cold, and at the same time there was something curiously oppressive about the atmosphere. The door on my side opened on to the platform, and I sprang up—still without looking round—and let down the window with an irresistible impulse. I accounted to myself for the haste with which I had moved by looking eagerly for a porter with fresh foot warmers. No such person was visible, but nevertheless I did not draw in my head again.

“The groups of people moving to and fro had a singular attraction for me, and I stood there, at the window, in spite of the cold—which affected me less now that the window was open than it had done when it was shut—until the train began to move again. I sat down in my corner, pulled up the window, and then turned, for the first time since I had become aware of their presence, towards my fellow-travellers.

“The corner seats were vacant! They were no longer there!
“My first feeling, as I realised that I was alone, was one of blank astonishment. It is by no means usual for a train so to run into a station that passengers can get out from either side of a carriage. Moreover, not the slightest sound of their departure had reached my ears as I stood at the window. My astonishment subsided, however. I accepted the practical explanation of the matter which alone presented itself to me, and proceeded to compose myself once more to the enjoyment of my solitude.

“But for the first time in my life, solitude failed to make itself congenial to me. The brief interval of companionship—as conveyed by the contemplation and reflection of my fellow-travellers—had apparently demoralised me. A singular realisation of the isolation of my position, shut in there alone, and moving rapidly through the darkness, presented itself to me.

“The personality of those same fellow-travellers, also, had impressed me altogether unduly. It was not only that I could not forget them; I found myself dwelling on them. The girl’s face came between me and the book I was reading; the man’s callous indifference to her evident pleading oppressed me strangely. Vague sentences, the sense of which invariably eluded me as I tried to grasp them, kept floating through my mind, and I knew that I was trying to construct the drift of her words—those words of which I had not caught the faintest murmur.

“So completely possessed was I with the thought of the two that it did not strike me as being strange, when I gradually became aware of that singular feeling which everyone has experienced—the feeling that I was not alone. But I was distinctly surprised when I realised that the feeling was becoming curiously distasteful to me.

“It was absolutely still in the carriage, and, after the cheery bustle of the station, the quiet jarred on me. The beat and rumble of the train seemed to come from a long way off, shutting in the island of dead silence, of which I was the centre.

“I lifted my eyes from my book, on which they had been mechanically fixed, and looked about me. The dim lamp cast the usual depressing light over the usual accessories of a first-class carriage. Opposite me were the three empty places, divided by the regulation cushioned arms. On the side on which I sat were two more empty places. Between the two seats at the other end lay the unused footwarmer. It chimed in too aptly with my weird sense of unseen fellow-travellers, and pinching myself slightly, I turned with a sharp movement of self-contempt, to look out of the window at my side.

“I looked once more, not out into a dimly discerned landscape but into a clear-cut reflection of the carriage in which I sat. And there, reflected back with ghastly distinctness—reflected back as sitting in those seats which I had seen the instant before were empty—were my fellow-travellers.”

Miss Lanyon paused. She was looking straight before her, her hands clenched tightly round the arms of her chair. Every trace of colour had died out of her strong face, and she went on in a slow harsh voice,
“You think you know what it is to be cold. Frances,” she said. “You don’t. You had better pray that you never may! It is to feel yourself gradually losing all human sensation; to feel that where there should be glowing moving blood there is motionless ice; to feel that the very atmosphere about you is not the atmosphere of every day, warm with the breath of your fellow creatures, but something rarified until its chill is agony.

“It comes about slowly—very, very slowly. First your heart ceases to beat—dies, and grows cold within you. Then the same cold spreads, little by little, until your every limb is frozen, and you can neither move nor breathe. I have felt cold only once in my life. I felt it then. I sat in my place, spell-bound, gazing at the reflection of that which I knew possessed no actual form, and the train swayed and jarred on its rushing way through the night.

“The position of the two figures had altered slightly. The man had laid down his paper, and his face was fully visible to me. It was the handsome face of a man of about thirty-five, blasé, and sensual in expression, and with a suggestion of cruelty about its lines.

“All its worst points were evidently accentuated at the moment. The brows were heavily contracted, and the mouth was very hard. The wind had dropped, suddenly. The throbbing beat of the train went on, rapid, monotonous, unceasing. There was absolute silence in the carriage. No external sounds came between my sense of hearing and the sound of a voice. But though I saw that he was speaking, I heard nothing.

“He was speaking sharply and decisively—that I saw. The girl was listening to him, her eyes fixed on his face, one hand pressed against her heart. It was her left hand, and ungloved, and I saw that it was ringless. Almost before he stopped she had broken again into speech. She was evidently dissenting from what he had said, trembling from head to foot with the vehemence of her emotion. Demonstrating, denying, pleading, the quivering passion threatening every moment to break through the difficult restraint of her expression, she lifted one small hand with a tremulous gesture, and, pushing the hair from her forehead, looked feverishly round the carriage.

“Her face was turned towards me, and I saw her eyes. Deep and dark, half wild, and desperate, I met them fully reflected in the glass, and in the same instant my own natural life, frozen and dead within me, seemed to be replaced by another. A burning, craving desire swelled up in me. I was shaken from head to foot by such an intensity of emotion as I had never known—as was utterly foreign to my temperament. As I sat there, conscious with a ghastly double consciousness of my own rigid, spell-bound figure, I knew that my agony of mind belonged not to me, but to her—to the girl reflected in the glass before me.

“She paused at last in her rapid speech, and such a sick hunger of hope and fear rose in my heart as almost choked me, while she waited, leaning rather forward, for his answer. There was a moment’s pause. The wind shrieked and wailed, and my eyes burned in their sockets as I strained them upon the window. Then, without a word, the man took up his newspaper again.
“On the instant the girl started to her feet, tearing the newspaper from his hands, and facing him, her slender figure tense with fury. A passionate sense of intolerable wrong, of treachery and deceit, culminating in unendurable cruelty, was turning her brain to fire, and I watched, my very life seeming to beat in her frenzied, impulsive movements.

“Speaking wildly, almost incoherently, she lifted her hands to the throat of her dress, and drew out a little bit of ribbon, on which was strung a ring— a wedding ring. She dragged it off, snapping the ribbon-like cotton, and thrust the ring into its place on her finger, stretching out her left hand—the hand now of a wife—to him, as she did so, with a gesture which was superb in its agony and appeal. He did not move or speak; he was watching her with a heavy, lowering face; and as I looked from her to him I thought that if I had been free to talk or feel, I should have felt a shock of fear.

“Then, as suddenly as it had arisen, her form died away. Before I realised the change, she had fallen on her knees on the carriage floor, catching his hand in hers in such utter self-abandonment as I had never before conceived. I had heard of supplication, but I had never known what it meant until I shared the prayer which that unhappy girl raised to the man at whose feet she knelt.

“It was only for a moment. He drew his hand deliberately away, and, looking down into her upturned face, spoke one short sentence. For a moment the reflected figure of the girl knelt on there, motionless. Then she rose. She stood for an instance in silence, and then began to speak, slowly. He had driven her beyond the limits of endurance to defiance. She told him what she intended to do. I don’t know what it was—I have never known—but I felt her meaning, then, as clearly as though I had heard her words. She drew from the bosom of her dress papers which she showed him as ocular demonstration of her intention, replacing them quietly.

“As he spoke I saw his face change. I saw the lines about his mouth contract. His hand moved rapidly to his breast pocket, the bright steel of a revolver flashed in the lamplight, and as I shrieked out in insane warning, the blackness of the night passed across the reflection, and I saw no more.

“The wind moaned, the throbbing beat of the train went on and on, and I sat there paralysed, staring straight before me, with burning, starting eyes. The darkness into which they looked was awful to me—the darkness which hid horror unspeakable.

“But the dimly-lighted carriage, on the other hand, was infinitely more awful. I dared not look round. The fearful conviction with which I was penetrated, that if I did so I should see nothing, was even more hideous to me than the ghastly companionship of which I was dimly conscious. The wild emotion of the past few moments had died out utterly. No feeling but one of sick, intolerable horror was alive in me as I waited, never turning my eyes, for what I knew would come.

“Many lifetimes of frozen suspense seemed to elapse, and then, suddenly, and without warning—as the necessary external conditions recurred—the reflection was visible again.

“I had known what I should see. I had thought that I was numbed to any further sense of horror. But as my eyes rested on the dreadful stillness of that girlish figure, huddled limply on the seat—beside me, as it were—I knew that I had been mistaken. At first I saw that figure only. My head was growing giddy, and I was on the verge of losing consciousness, when a stealthy movement in the reflection shocked me back to life. The man, who had been withdrawn out of range of the reflector, came back into the picture.

“He was white to the lips, and the evil determination of his face was hideous to see. I felt myself shrink and cower in my corner as though I were trying to hide from his wicked eyes. He stood still, and drew out his watch. Stepping with a care intolerable in its ghastly significance, he passed the motionless body, and going to the window, let it down and looked out. Then he pulled it up again, and began to move about with quick decisive movements.

“He took down his Gladstone from the rack, and unstrapped a second rug. Without an instant’s pause, he lifted the heavy, inanimate form, and placed it carefully in the corner. With the same rapid, callous movements, he drew from the dead girl’s dress the papers with which she had threatened him. One rug he arranged about her so as to give the impression of a sleeping figure; the other he flung on the floor at her feet, where it looked as though it had slipped from her knees. He put on his hat, and took his bag in his hand.

“By this time I knew we were slackening speed, slackening it slowly, and with the deliberation incidental to arrival at a large station. I felt that in a moment more the reflection must cease. We were going slower and slower. I saw the man put his hand on the handle of the door, turn it, and stand waiting. I saw him jump out, and then—the lights of a station once more, and the train at a standstill.

“I was released. I knew nothing else. An insane desire to see that cruel deed avenged, to bring down justice on the doer, literally possessed me. I rushed across the carriage, flung open the door, and, clutching at the first person I saw, entreated him wildly to stop the murderer, to fetch a doctor, not to let him go. I was vaguely aware of a circle of bewildered faces about me. I heard my voice rise to a hoarse cry, and then I fainted.”

Miss Lanyon’s voice ceased abruptly, and there was an interval of dead silence. She had spoken in a low, vibrating voice, the very intense restraint of which witnessed, as no words could have done, to the strength of her feelings. Her breath was coming thick and short. The girl who had listened to her was very still; her fingers were clenched tightly together in her lap, and she was rather pale. It was Miss Lanyon who spoke first.

“That’s all,” she said. “Don’t take the trouble to comment, Frances. I know all the stock observations as to optical delusions, overstrung nerves, and dreams. Only I myself can realise the awful reality of that ghastly experience. I don’t expect to convey it to anyone else.”

“Did you ever find out—did you ever hear of any reason?” The girl’s voice was low and awestruck. The manner with which Miss Lanyon had told her story had affected even her self-assured practicality.

There was a moment’s pause, and then Miss Lanyon said, hoarsely:

“I found out, with infinite difficulty, that the dead body of a girl, shot through the heart, had been taken out of the train which reached Norwich at the same time in the evening, on the same day of the same month two years before. I heard that no clue to her identity had ever been discovered, and that her murderer had never been traced. And I heard that she had been found in the carriage occupying the same position on the train as that in which I had travelled from London—the third from the engine.”

A low inarticulate exclamation broke from the girl, and then she was silent again. She was evidently making a valiant stand against the impression made on her, when she said, with rather uncertain assurance:

“It’s a most curious story, Miss Lanyon, and I’m immensely grateful to you for telling it me. All the same, I don’t see—”

Miss Lanyon interrupted her brusquely.

“No,” she said. “But I did see. That is just the difference.”