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The Little Angel and Other Stories/At the Roadside Station

AT THE ROADSIDE STATION


It was early spring when I went to the bungalow. On the road still lay last year's darkened leaves. I was unaccompanied; and alone I wandered through the still empty bungalow, the windows of which reflected the April sun. I mounted the broad bright terraces, and wondered who would live here under the green canopy of birch and oak. And when I closed my eyes I seemed to hear quick, cheerful footsteps, youthful song, and the ringing sound of women's laughter.

I used often to go to the station to meet the passenger trains. I was not expecting any one, for there was no one to come and see me; but I am fond of those iron giants, when they rush past, rolling their shoulders, tearing along the rails with colossal momentum, and carrying somewhither persons unknown to me, but still my fellow-creatures. They seem to me alive and uncanny. In their speed I recognize the immensity of the world and the might of man, and when they whistle with such abandon and in so imperious a manner, I think how they are whistling in the same way in America, and Asia, maybe in torrid Africa.

The station was a small one, with two short sidings, and when the passenger train had left it became still and deserted. The forest and the streaming sunshine dominated the little low platform and the desolate track, and blended the rails in silence and light. On one of the sidings under an empty sleeping-car fowls wandered about, swarming round the iron wheels, and one could hardly believe, as one watched their peaceful, fussy activity, that it would be much the same in America, in Asia, or in torrid Africa.

. . . In a week I became acquainted with all the inhabitants of this little corner, and saluted as acquaintances the watchmen in their blue blouses, and the silent pointsmen with their dull countenances and their brass horns, which glittered in the sun.

Every day I saw at the station a gendarme. He was a healthy, strong fellow, as are they all, with broad back, in a tightly stretched blue uniform, with enormous arms and a youthful countenance, upon which, from behind a severe official dignity, there still looked out the blue-eyed naivete of the country. At first he used to scan me all over with a gloomy suspicion, and put on a look of unapproachable severity without a touch of indulgence, and when he passed me would clank his spurs in a peculiarly sharp and eloquent manner. But he soon became used to me, just as he had become used to the pillars which supported the roof of the platform, to the desolate track, and to the discarded sleeping-car under which the fowls kept running about. In such quiet corners a habit is soon formed. And when he left off observing me, I perceived that this man was bored—bored as no one else in the world. He was bored with the wearisome station, bored by the absence of thoughts, bored by his strength-devouring inactivity, bored by the exclusiveness of his position, somewhere in the void between the station-master, who was unapproachable to him, and the lower employes to whom he was himself unapproachable. His soul lived on breaches of the peace, but at this tiny station no one ever committed a breach of the peace, and every time the passenger train departed without any adventure there passed over the face of the gendarme the expression of annoyance and vexation of a person who has been deprived of his due. For some minutes he would stand still in indecision, and then with listless gait walk to the other end of the platform without any aim or object. On his way he might stop for a second in front of some peasant woman who had been waiting for the train—but she was only a peasant woman like any other—and so knitting his brows the gendarme would pass on his way.

Then he would sit down stout and listless, as though he had been boiled soft, and felt how soft and flabby were his useless arms under the cloth of his uniform, and how his powerful body, created for work, grew weary with the torturing fatigue of doing nothing. We are bored only in the head, but he was bored in every part of him, from head to foot: his cap, cocked on one side with youthful lack of purpose, was bored, his spurs were bored and tinkled inharmoniously and irregularly as though muffled. Then he began to yawn. How he yawned! his mouth became contorted, expanded from ear to ear, grew broader and broader, till it swallowed up his whole face, it seemed that in another second, through the ever enlarging aperture, you would be able to see down his throat, choke-full of greasy soup. How he yawned! He went away in a hurry, but for long that awful yawn seemed to put my jaw-bone out of joint, and the trees were broken and bobbing about to my tear-filled eyes.

Once from the mail train they took a passenger travelling without a ticket, and this was a very festival for the bored gendarme. He drew himself up, his spurs jingled with precision and austerity, his face became concentrated and angry; but his happiness was but short-lived. The passenger paid his fare, and with a hasty oath got back into the car, and in the rear the metal rowels of the gendarme's spurs gave a disconcerted and piteous rattle, as his enervated body swayed feebly over them.

And at times when he yawned he became to me something terrible.

For some days workmen had been busy about the station clearing the site, and when I returned from town after a stay of a couple of days, the masons were laying the third row of bricks; a brand-new building was arising. These masons were numerous, and worked quickly and skilfully; and it was a strange pleasure to watch the straight, even wall springing up out of the ground. When they had covered one row with mortar they laid on a second row, adjusting the bricks according to their dimensions, laying them now on the broad side, now on the narrow, and cutting off the corners to make them fit. They worked meditatively, and though the course of their meditation was evident enough, and their problem clear, still it gave an additional charm and interest to the work. I was looking at them with enjoyment when an authoritative voice at my elbow shouted:

"Look here, you. What's your name! Why don't you put this right?"

It was the voice of the gendarme, squeezing himself through the iron railings, which separated the asphalt platform from the workmen; he was pointing to a certain brick and insisting: "You with the beard! lay that brick properly. Don't you see, it's a half-brick?"

The mason with the beard, which was in places whitened with lime, turned round in silence—the gendarme's face was severe and imposing—in silence he followed the direction of the gen-darme's finger, took up the brick, trimmed it, and in silence put it back in its place. The gendarme gave me a severe look and went away; but the seductive interest in the work was stronger than his sense of dignity. When he had made a couple of turns on the platform, he again came to a standstill in front of the workmen, adopting a somewhat careless and contemptuous pose. But his face no longer showed signs of boredom.

I went to the wood, and when I was returning through the station it was one o'clock, the workmen were resting, and the place was empty as usual. But some one was busying himself about the unfinished wall; it was the gendarme. He was taking up bricks, and finishing the fifth row. I could only catch a sight of his broad, tightly stretched back, but it was expressive of intent thought, and indecision. Evidently the work was more complicated than he had imagined. His unaccustomed eye was playing him false; he stepped back, shook his head, stooped for a fresh brick, striking the ground with his sabre as he bent down. Once he raised his finger, in the classic gesture of one who has discovered the solution of a problem, such as might have been used by Archimedes himself, and his back once more assumed the erect attitude of greater self-confidence and certainty. But immediately it became once more doubled up in the consciousness of the undignified nature of the work undertaken. There was in his whole, full-grown figure something secretive as with children, when they are afraid they will be found out.

I carelessly struck a match to light a cigarette, and the gendarme turned round startled. For a moment he looked at me in confusion, and suddenly his youthful countenance was illumined by a slightly solicitous, confiding, and kindly smile. But the very next moment he resumed his austere, unapproachable look, and his hand went up to his little thin moustache—but in it, in that very hand, there still lay that unlucky brick! And I saw how painfully ashamed he was of that brick, and of his involuntary, compromising smile. Apparently he did not know how to blush, otherwise he would have become as red as the brick which he still held helplessly in his hand.

They had carried the wall up half way, and it was no longer possible to see what the skilful masons were doing on their scaffolding. Once more the gendarme oscillated from end to end of the platform, yawning, and when he turned round and passed me I could feel that he was ashamed—and that he hated me. And as I looked at his powerful arms listlessly swinging in their sleeves, at his inharmoniously jingling spurs and trailing sabre, it seemed to me that it was all unreal—that in the scabbard there was no sabre at all with which he might cut a man down, in the case no revolver, with which he might shoot a man dead. And his very uniform, that too was unreal, and seemed as though it was all just some strange masquerade taking place in full daylight. in the face of the honest April sun, and amidst ordinary working people, and busy fowls picking up grains under the sleeping-car.

But at times—at times I began to fear for some one. He was so terribly bored. . .