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MR. JEREMIAH CURTIS was a bagman—in other words, a commercial traveller. He was a man who always looked upon the bright side of things; wherever he went, whomever he met, he was ever jovial, chatty, and good-tempered. As Chairman or "Mr. Vice" at that important midday function, the dinner in the commercial room, where he was always a persona grata, he was in his element. He did a good business for his firm too, and made a liberal income as things go nowadays. Unfortunately, to this list of his good qualities must be added one great weakness, and that was—drink? No. Joking! Yes, and even worse—punning! It was this propensity that one day got him into trouble, and led to his being carried to the accident ward of a hospital; as will presently appear.
Mr. Curtis travelled in the hardware line—so he himself, perhaps a little ironically, phrased it. He was, in fact, a traveller for a firm of engineers who manufactured locomotives, and this he was wont, when asked what "line" he travelled in, to explain in his own characteristic fashion.
"What 'line' do I travel in, sir?" he would begin, "well, I travel in locomotives, sir—yes, in locomotives. And yet I ain't no engine-driver, nor stoker either. Ha, ha, ha! That's odd, ain't it, sir? And here's another curious thing. Most people can travel only in a railway carriage when they go by rail, but I—I, when I go a journey, I travel in the carriages and in locomotives at the same time. Ha, ha, ha! Sounds what they call a pepperbox—I mean a paradox—don't it? Of course, I don't carry, my samples with me. Fact, I assure you. Ain't got any stored about me in my pockets anywhere. You may search me if you doubt it. Ain't got any in my baggage either. You can look through my bag, and see, if you like. Never travelled with a sample but once, and then the sample travelled with me; man wanted an engine in a hurry, and said he must see sample before he gave the order. Rushed down to my firm, and got 'em to send one along the line. I went on it myself, so as to be on the spot when it arrived. It made me awful seasick, but—I sold it, and booked an order for two more!"
ONE day Mr. Curtis, in the ordinary course of his business called at the office of the Loco. Superintendent (Locomotive Engineer) of one of our leading railways; but found him out, and not expected for an hour or two. Mr. Curtis, with his usual dogged patience, decided to wait for his return, and to occupy the interval with a smoke while he watched the trains go by. The great man's office was beside the railway, about two or three miles from the London terminus, at the junction of various converging lines that run henceforth side by side to the main station. Here the whole line was very wide, being what is known technically as a "yard." Lines crossed each other in the most bewildering fashion; trains kept dashing past, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other, and in and out, amongst them all, single engines crept about, bent on shunting trucks and carriages, or may be, simply shifting from one line to another. Crossing a "yard" on foot is at all times risky, even to those accustomed to it. The metal crossings are so intricate that it is next to impossible, to tell which line approaching trains or engines are really making for, and they often steal up and threaten to run you down in the most unexpected and surprising manner.
But Mr. Curtis knew the place well; he understood the points and crossings, and watched, not approaching trains, but the signals, which is the only safe way—if you understand them. He made for the green slope of an embankment which flanked the lines on the opposite side, and seemed a convenient and inviting spot on which to sun one's self and watch all that went on around. He crossed over in safety, and was soon seated halfway up the bank enjoying his pipe. There was a drowsiness in the air, and Mr. Curtis was on the point of dropping off into a doze, when a man came down the bank from above and seated himself beside him, with a bluff "Fine day, sir."
Mr. Curtis regarded the newcomer lazily. He was an old man with long white hair, and close-cut snow-white beard. His face was wrinkled, but his eyes were bright—almost too bright some might have thought, for there was a sort of wildness in their glitter. But the man seemed quiet and peaceable enough. As to raiment he was dressed in corduroy of the kind affected by railway porters, and which, by its peculiar odour, so unpleasantly affects most people. He had with him a carpet bag—long in shape, like those used by cricketers—and this he opened, taking from it a book and some biscuits. These last he settled down to eat, at the same time studying the book, and occasionally glancing at Mr. Curtis. Presently, he remarked again, "Fine day, sir."
Mr. Curtis took his pipe from his mouth. "Well," he said, slowly, but with the usual twinkle in his eye, "you can call it 'fine' if you like. I didn't contradict you. Yet, if I were to say, 'of course it is,' you might think I was denyin' it—or else makin' a pun." And be chuckled hugely to himself.
The stranger shivered.
"I hates puns—and—jokes—of all sorts," he said. "'Specially practical jokes."
"Oh, mine are never too practical," Mr. Curtis returned, with a sort of wink. "Sometimes people do say they're rather far- fetched, may be; but that's because I travel about a lot, and they've travelled along with me, you see."
But the other didn't seem to see. In fact he looked annoyed, and relapsed into silence, and the study of his book.
His name was Samuel Wiggins, but he was known generally as "Old Sammy." He had been a porter at the adjacent station, but just at the time when the railway authorities were thinking of superannuating him, he came into a legacy, and was able to retire on a small income of his own. During some years of his employment he had been attached to one of the ambulance classes—or corps as they are called—of which there are now many on all the railways. The object is, of course, that the railway staff shall be qualified to render what is termed "First Aid" to sufferers from accidents of any kind; and the directors give every encouragement to the movement. There are frequent competitions between "corps" from different stations or localities; numerous prizes are offered, and these are distributed by distinguished persons at public gatherings; and amongst a large number of railway employees it is a matter of the highest ambition to obtain a medal or certificate of efficiency, as well as to carry off prizes from competing companies from other districts.
OLD SAMMY had been one of the first to join an ambulance class, and had worked hard and enthusiastically throughout. He had his medals and certificates, and—jointly with others in his "corps"—had won prizes which had been presented amid the plaudits of select and appreciative witnesses. He was known up and down the line as one of the cleverest and most experienced at the drill, and was correspondingly elated. In fact, he made a hobby of it; and now that he had little if anything, to do, he still made it his constant study. Only—Sammy was getting old and a little shaky—and, sooth to say, there were those who even called him 'dotty.' Their belief was that poor Old Sammy had worked at 'First-aid' till it had turned his brain; that an overmastering longing had taken possession of him—a yearning to put his knowledge into practice before his death. And it was hinted that, having never met with an opportunity of doing this, he now haunted the neighbourhood of the railway in a sort of half crazy expectation that one day his services might be put into requisition.
Be this as it may, it is certain that almost every day throughout the year Sammy was to be seen hanging about the station, or seated near the railway track, with his carpet bag—which it was said contained 'appliances'—and poring over the pages of "The Ambulance Pupil; or First-aid to the Injured."
Presently Mr. Curtis, who guessed that Sammy was a bit of a character, proceeded, by careful advances, to 'draw him out'; and very soon was in possession of nearly all the information above set forth. He listened attentively, and at the end observed:
"Now, suppose I were to 'put on an injured air,' what would you do for my relief?"
Sammy made a gesture of annoyance, and replied in a tone of some disgust: "So long as your 'ead was all right, I shouldn't trouble about your 'air. I ain't a barber."
Mr. Curtis laughed, and suggested another case:
"Well, if one of my locomotives met with an accident, would you know how to treat it? Could you repair damages?"
"Engines ain't like human bein's," answered Sammy impatiently. "What we has to do is to relieve sufferin'. Engines ain't got no feelin's."
"There you're wrong," returned Mr. Curtis, with much gravity. "I've known more than one that had a tender attachment."
But Sammy only sniffed unappreciatively, and, to turn the conversation, pointed to an express that was dashing past.
"There's the new sleepin' saloon carriages," he said.
"Oh, yes; I've heard of them. There's a queer difficulty that has cropped up about them, I have been given to understand."
"Why, the question has been raised as to whether the company's ordinary bylaws apply to them, or not. Some of the directors are of opinion that they ought to frame special rules for them, and call them by-bye-laws."
Sammy was about to make some very pertinent observation, when his attention was drawn to a workman who had come from one of the workshops. Sammy spoke to the man civilly, but was answered roughly and jeered at in return.
"Who's that?" asked Mr. Curtis, when the man had passed. "Friend of yours?"
"He's a mechanic from the engineering workshops yonder," was the reply.
"Not a very polite sort of mechanic," commented Mr. Curtis.
"No, sir; he's a bit surly at times."
"Ah! a sort of 'uncivil' engineer, I suppose. Eh?"
Sammy made no reply. He did not care for the other's constant joking. He was almost getting out of temper about it. Meantime an engine that was being shunted had stopped near them, and was waiting for the signal to start again! Mr. Curtis looked at his watch.
"I must be going," he said. "I will say, 'good-day,' and many thanks for your entertaining lecture on ambulance work. Shouldn't wonder if they don't make you a sort of Grand Master of the business one of these days; or, at least, a deputy-grand- assistant 'First-aid,' or a lemonade, or a gingerade—or —"
"Now, look 'ere, sir," Sammy exclaimed, firing up wrathfully. "I don't want none of your chaff."
Mr. Curtis had stepped on to the rail, not noticing that the driver in the shunting engine was just touching the 'regulator,' preparatory to starting. He turned round and called out with a chuckle—
"You should never say 'chaff.' All well-brought-up railway men cull it 'raillery.'"
It was the last attempt at a pun he was fated to make for some time, for the engine had begun to move in the noiseless manner of a well-tended locomotive, and the next moment the incorrigible joker was lying beneath it.
When he was pulled out on to the side, he showed no signs of life. The stoker, who had jumped off the engine to his assistance, began shouting to some men in the distance, but Sammy told him to be quiet. The grand opportunity of his life had come at last! and he wanted no interference.
"Leave him to me," he said. "I know exactly what to do." And he opened his carpet bag, and began to turn out its contents.
A wonderful and awesome collection it was! There were splints and bandages and ligatures, and tourniquets and mysterious looking instruments that Sammy had picked up at second-hand shops—for he had been spending his savings for years in this form of 'collecting.' Altogether he had enough, one would have thought, to fit out a small Surgical Aid Society.
He examined the prostrate and unresisting Mr. Curtis. He turned him this way, and that, on his face and on his back, looking very grave and wise the while; the driver and the stoker watching all his movements, anxious and mystified, yet with a touching confidence in old Sammy's well-known aptitude for "First-aid" work. By degrees he bandaged Mr. Curtis up so that very little could be seen of him, then he glanced round him for "bearers" to carry his "patient" to the hospital, about half a mile away. By this time four or live porters had come across from the neighbouring station, bringing a stretcher with them, and, among them, three youngsters who had been under Sammy in one of his instruction classes. Beckoning to them, he bade them range themselves according to the rules of ambulance drill. They knew the proper routine, and quickly took up their positions, while Sammy, holding his book in his hand behind him (handy for surreptitious peeps in case he should, in his excitement, forget the exact words of command), gave out his orders like a drill sergeant:
And the procession started.
A LITTLE later, the senior surgeon at the hospital was examining with much surprise and in some perplexity, a rolled-up bundle that had been brought into the accident ward, said to be a man who had been run over on the railway, but that quite as much resembled a mummy from an Egyptian tomb. Round him stood a number of students, all looking on—for the surgeon had been lecturing when the "accident" had been brought in, and hastened away at once, the "class" following at his heels. Sammy stood by, smiling proudly, and triumphant.
"H'm," said the surgeon. "Splints on right arm—"
"Broken," murmured Sammy.
"Tourniquet on left arm—"
"To check loss of blood," Sammy interjected.
"H'm. Splints and bandages on legs—"
"Fractured thigh—broken knee-cap," sotto voce from Sammy.
"Jaw bandaged. I scarcely understand this. Looks like a gag—"
"Patient was excited, sir," Sammy explained. "Was light- headed, I think, sir. Used strong language, sir." For it seemed that Mr. Curtis had revived, and had protested against the proceedings.
He protested again—and still more strongly—when the surgeon removed the bandages from his face, and so allowed him to speak.
"You great idiot!" he shouted to Sammy; "I'll make you smart for this! It's assault and—and—kidnapping—and—false imprisonment—and—inciting to a breach of the peace—that's what it is! Yes; and I'll have a try at the lot of you for—for—conspiracy—or attempted murder, or something. Let me go! Undo these things! I tell you there's nothing the matter with me! Undo the things, and let me get up and go and settle accounts with that butchering idiot over there. There's nothing the matter with me, I tell you!"
AND so it proved. He had seen the engine coming in time to try a trick, well known to railway men, of falling beneath it in the hollow between the two rails. But he had knocked his head against a sleeper, and that had partially stunned him for a few minutes; and, in that time, Sammy had swooped upon him—so he said—"like a hawk on a sparrow," and skewered him up "like a trussed turkey."
The surgeon, hardly crediting his statements, removed the various wraps with—to Curtis—exasperating deliberation, examining each part carefully, while he did so. Finally he pronounced the patient to have sustained no hurt of any kind.
"Of course not!" exclaimed Mr. Curtis, contemptuously, as he got up amid the laughter of the students. "Now good day, gentlemen. Let me get at that meddling old fool."
But Sammy was already out of sight, and had left no trail behind. In his haste he had incontinently abandoned all the ambulance appliances it had taken him so many years to get together, and he never even came back to claim them; nor did he haunt the railway any more. Whether he was satisfied with his one actual experience of an 'accident,' or feared the ridicule of the railway men, or was afraid of meeting the irate Mr. Curtis, is not known. He left the neighbourhood and disappeared.
THENCEFORTH Mr. Jeremiah Curtis gave up his practice of punning at every possible opportunity; thus, even in this case, his enforced visit to a hospital was not without its influence for good, both for himself and his fellow-creatures.