Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/A run for life

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume V  (1861) 
A run for life. A railroad adventure
by Daniel Pidgeon

Illustrated by Frederick Walker.


My business frequently leads me out of town, and as time is an object to me, I have got into a habit of travelling by the night mail trains. Usually, I arrange myself for sleep immediately on entering the carriage, and long practice at dozing under difficulties permits me to calculate with tolerable certainty upon a good night’s rest on my journey; but, occasionally, the presence of a more than commonly agreeable companion will tempt me from my custom and lead to a night vigil spent in pleasant talk. These indulgences are however rare, for I cannot afford to incur the weariness which follows on want of sleep very often, and I have therefore grown discriminating in my choice of the man or conversation which I count worthy to have the honour of my wakefulness. On the last occasion when I thus yielded to the temptation the circumstances were somewhat peculiar, and the story to which I listened so strange, that I propose to repeat it here for the reader’s benefit. In doing this I can scarcely hope the narrative will make the same impression upon him it did on me, since I cannot surround it with the actual incidents of the night in question which lent it peculiar fascination; still I believe, that even without the accompaniments of darkness and possible danger, it will prove to possess considerable interest of its own:

I took my sent one wild wet and wretched evening during this late winter, in a first-class carriage of the mail train leaving a London terminus for the north. No other passenger besides myself occupied the compartment, and I was soon wrapped up comfortably warm and meditating a snooze, when the train started.

The whistle sounded, the blurred images of the station lights began to move slowly past the windows, and we were fairly off.

In a few minutes I was sound asleep, and an hour or two of perfect forgetfulness must have ensued, when I was suddenly wakened by a shock which sent me flying, a confused mass of humanity and wrappers, into the arms of an opposite passenger whom I then saw for the first time, and who had probably entered the carriage at one of the intermediate stations from town without disturbing my slumbers. For a few moments the violence of the blow, together with the confusion of ideas consequent on being newly wakened out of a sound sleep, left me in a very nervous condition; but on presently observing that the train had come to a standstill, I became somewhat calmer, and listened with tolerable composure to the quieting assurances of my companion.

“It is a mere nothing,” he remarked, “probably a break down of some goods’ train before us. Suppose we get out and hear all about it.”

We left the carriage, and soon discovered the cause of the mishap, which was but slight. Just as my new friend supposed; a luggage-engine had broken down on the line, and had sent back her guard to warn us of the fact. Our driver had seen the signals, but had not been able quite to pull up before reaching the luggage vans, hence we had run into the hindmost of them at a speed of from three to four miles an hour. Slow as this rate appears, it was sufficient to pitch me, as I have described, right into my neighbour’s arms, and in my half-sleeping state seriously to alarm me. Half an hour’s delay put everything straight again; the goods’ engine was patched up, and we resumed our seats, glad enough that matters were no worse, and not at all sorry to escape from the damp and bitter air outside.

This slight contretemps led the way naturally to a general conversation on accidents, in the course of which I found that Mr. Berkeley (for such I learnt was my companion’s name), was well acquainted with railway matters, in which he appeared to have had considerable experience. I had been not a little surprised at the violence of the shock which was communicated to our train by a collision at so low a speed as four miles an hour, and on my expressing this feeling he said:

“You are quite right, no one would believe until he has actually felt it how apparently tremendous a blow can be given by a train moving so slowly, and I am quite sure it would be impossible to convey the least idea of the effects produced by collisions at high rates of speed.”

I inquired had he ever been in any accident of the kind, and he replied:

“Once; but the disaster was of a somewhat unusual character; if you feel indisposed to renew your nap perhaps you might like to hear the story.”

Further sleep was out of the question and I begged him to proceed, when he forthwith told me the following facts.

“I must premise then,” he began, “that though now a tolerably prosperous and well-to-do person, I did not always occupy my present position. At this moment I am one of the directors of the railway on which we are travelling, but I commenced life considerably lower down the social ladder. My father was an extremely clever and capable artisan, who possessed besides ability, considerable prudence and no small share of ambition.

“With such qualities it was only natural that he should rise in life; and he did so. Before I was sixteen years of age he held a lucrative and responsible position in the locomotive department on one of the great north country lines, and had he lived I think he might have made himself a name in the world. I was his only son, and he gave me a good education, deeply tinged with a mechanical colouring, in the hope that I should improve on his success. In this hope, if he were alive, he would not, perhaps, be altogether disappointed; but, although I have no reason to complain of want of present prosperity and social position, it is none the less true that the spare hours and holidays of my school life were spent chiefly among workshops, mechanics, and engine drivers. In those young days I had a passion for the locomotive, and my boyish ambition was to become a master of all the mysteries and duties connected therewith. Thus I was for ever loafing about the engine-house and getting an occasional trip with good-natured drivers more ready to please an inquiring youngster than careful to obey the company’s regulations. In this way I early gained a tolerably complete insight into the management of the locomotive, and being a shrewd self confident lad, soon acquired a profound belief in my capacity for discharging all the duties of a driver. I had, besides, an inseparable companion named Mark Hibberd, whose father followed the calling I thought I should so much adorn, and who delighted equally with me in pottering about among the engines and men, or riding short distances whenever the opportunity occurred. The elder Hibberd was an extremely daring and clever driver, a first-rate workman; but unfortunately like too many of our very best artizans, given to occasional fits of drunkenness. This peculiarity had got him into trouble once or twice before the time of which I am speaking, but as on each occasion his escapades had been productive of no actual harm, and he was in other respects a very valuable man, he was retained but cautioned. Mark was quite as great a proficient as myself in knowledge of the craft, and the dearest wish of both was to have our abilities properly recognised among the workmen who were our companions. In all our little enterprises and adventures Mark, however, was the leader, he inherited his father’s skill and courage, and soon acquired even among the men a good reputation for steady pluck and shrewdness. Such were young Hibberd and myself at about the age of fifteen; but in order that you may clearly understand the whole of my story it will be necessary for me now to explain the situation and peculiarities of our station and the neighbouring line. Coulston is a large town on the —— railway, standing midway between Allonby, which is ten miles below, and Castleton, which is ten miles above it.

“Attached to the station are the locomotive works already mentioned, and a very large engine-house. In the latter, the number of engines was generally considerable, and this was our favourite haunt where we lurked at all hours, hoping for the chance of a run with some complaisant comrade down to Allonby, whence we trusted to the chapter of accidents and ‘Shanks his mare,’ for a return journey. The engine-house stood at a distance of about 200 yards below Coulston station, with which it was connected by a siding joining the main line, in a manner with which everyone is familiar.

“Allonby was a small place where few trains stopped, while our town was large and of rising importance. The nearest down station of any size was Lichester, about forty miles distant. It happened one dark but clear November evening, that Mark Hibberd and I were lounging about our favourite engine-house chatting to one and another of the drivers who were busy oiling and cleaning their respective locomotives. Old Hibberd’s ‘Firefly,’ was there with steam up, an order having come during the afternoon that Mark’s father was to be in readiness to take a ‘special’ down to Lichester at eight o’clock precisely. Hibberd himself was not there, though it was then half-past seven, and Mark said casually, in answer to a question from old Bob Jacobs, his fireman, that he hoped his father was not ‘on the lush,’ but he had been down to the Railway Arms again that afternoon for the first time during the last three months.

“We were standing on the footplate as we talked, and steam having been up some time and the water in the boiler somewhat low, I said to Jacobs, ‘Bob, you’ll have to run her down to the crossing and back a time or two to fill up the boiler,’ it being necessary, I must tell you, to put an engine in motion before the pumps which feed her with water can work.

‘Right you are, Mas’r Charley,’ said Bob; ‘but do you and Mas’r Mark take her down to the points and back agin while I light my lamps and fill my oil can.’

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“Here was one of the little chances we delighted in. It wanted exactly twenty minutes to eight when Mark turned on steam, and we glided slowly out of the engine-house, leaving old Jacobs trimming the ‘Firefly’s’ lamps. We had run backwards and forwards over the hundred yards of rails between the crossing and the house when Mark’s evil genius prompted him to exclaim:

‘I say, Charley, let’s run over the points and down the line for half-a-mile or so; we can be back easy by eight o’clock.’

“No sooner said than done. When we reached the points I dropped off and opened the switches, thus shunting the engine on to the up-line, upon which we proposed to indulge ourselves in some two or three minutes’ galop, and then return.

“Now in acting thus, you must understand that we did nothing whatever involving any danger from ordinary sources, and were in all human probability perfectly safe from mishap.

“The next train was an up express, not due at Coulston till 8.20, but which did not stop at Allonby. Nothing could possibly follow us from behind for we were on the up line of rails, and as we should be back again before eight o’clock, there was of course no danger to be apprehended from the coming train. Hibberd, on our return, had only to ship his lamps and start on the down line for Lichester.

“Our programme, however, was deranged in a way we little expected. Prudent if bold, we did not allow the delights of our galop to detain us too long, and it wanted some minutes to eight when we passed the crossing on our way back to the engine-house; we had slackened speed on approaching the points, and were travelling slowly and quietly when Mark shouted to me, ‘Put down the break, Charley, here’s the big “Swallow” coming out at a lick, and no mistake!’ In a moment we had stopped and reversed the ‘Firefly,’ and began to move slowly a-head down the up-line again, greatly wondering what it all might mean, but not in the least alarmed for our safety, since we had only to allow the ‘Swallow’ gradually to overtake us, and when she saw us (which, as we had no lamps was not so easy) both engines might return together. Meanwhile the giant behind us came on at such a rapidly increasing speed that we were unwillingly obliged to travel faster as well. We shouted and tried to attract attention from her driver, but in vain, and we presently began to think that something must be wrong. At length Mark whispered, ‘Charley, you may take my word for it that’s the governor, and he’s mad drunk. Like enough he’s got on the first engine that came to hand, and don’t know at this moment if he’s on the up or down line or what he’s doing—he’s the very devil after he’s been drinking.’ Here was a pleasant situation.

“It was just on the stroke of eight o’clock; in another ten minutes at farthest the up express would pass Allonby on its way to Coulston; before us therefore was the certainty of collision, and behind us an engine already running at a great rate which increased with every minute, and driven by a man mad drunk—what was to be done? It was a case in which moments are precious, and decision must be the work of a second of time.

‘Let us run for Allonby,’ said Mark, at once, with his hand upon the regulator. ‘Keep the whistle open all the way, and trust in Providence they’ll hear it, and have time and sense to shunt us on to the “down” before the express runs through.’

“I was for less vigorous measures. Something assured me that Mark was right, and that the engine behind us was driven by Hibberd in a state of intoxication; but I fancied that however drunk he might be, he would yet not be so utterly insane as to persist in rushing against certain destruction, provided we could make him understand his danger; so I proposed that we should slacken and let him overtake us, then climb upon the ‘Swallow,’ and by persuasion or force induce him to return. All this and much more passed between us in far fewer seconds than I take minutes to tell it you; in fact, the whole affair was a succession of such rapid action following upon decisions so swift that I find it impossible to give you the faintest idea of the startling suddenness with which the circumstances crowded on each other. For a moment Mark—thinking doubtless more of his father than himself—approved of my suggestion, and we slackened speed. By this time both engines were running at a perfectly frightful velocity, and the ‘Swallow’ almost istantly overhauled us. No sooner did her buffers touch ours than Mark flung himself upon his father’s engine. I watched him clamber along the boiler till I lost the outline of his figure in the darkness. A minute of unspeakable suspense followed, during which the ‘Swallow’ held on her rapid speed. I now did all I could to impede her progress. I shut off steam and screwed my breaks down till they were one sheet of flame, but still the hinder engine drove me forward. At length, after what seemed a whole hour to me, I heard above the din of the open whistle a succession of yells, mingled with hoarse curses. I closed the handle a moment to listen, and soon felt certain that a fearful struggle was going on between Hibberd and his son. I caught at the ‘Swallow,’ pulled myself on to her, and climbed as fast as I could towards the footplate. Half way along the boiler I met Mark returning reckless.

‘On to your engine,’ he screamed, ‘and run for Allonby.’

“This was enough for me; it was no time to ask or answer questions, and another second or two saw us both upon the ‘Firefly’—breaks up, whistle open, and all steam on. We drew quickly away from our companion; but the few minutes of delay had frightfully diminished our chances of safety.

“It was so dark that I could not clearly see Mark’s face, but I knew from the disturbed appearance of his clothes there had been a tussle, and I said simply, ‘Well, Mark?’ While speaking, I opened the fire-door, and as the red gleam burst out I started in renewed horror, for his whole face, neck, and hands were covered with blood.

‘It’s my own, Charley,’ he whispered; and even while he spoke, with the certainty of an awful death before him, the noble fellow’s eyes filled as he added, ‘God help my poor father! he’s seen his last drunken spree this night.’

“In hurried words he told me that on reaching the foot-plate of the engine he found Hibberd alone, and raging drunk: that he had made an effort to reverse the ‘Swallow’s’ gear, and in order to do so put his hand upon the starting lever. This fairly maddened Hibberd, who flew upon him before he could accomplish his object and commenced the brief but deadly struggle I had heard. Mark was powerless in his father’s strong hands, and escaped almost by a miracle from being dashed off on to the line by a blow which felled him. In the fall his head was cut open against some of the iron work, and he was forced to return as I have described without gaining his end. But no kind of danger made the brave lad blench, and his eyes darkened and his teeth set as, with hand upon the whistle, he strained forward for a glimpse of Allonby signals. As for me, I grew sick; I took out my watch for what I feared was the last time, glanced at the hands, and then sat down upon the tool-box, covered my face, and wept bitter tears as I thought of the father at home who was so proud of me, and the mother whom I loved so dearly. A touch of Mark’s roused me. I looked at the dial again, but could not read the figures: he took the watch from my hand, and his voice was quite steady as he said:

‘Another two minutes for us, Charley, and there are Allonby signals.’

“We had been travelling only eight minutes since we first knew our danger, but what an age it seemed! I remember he was handing me back the watch when his hand touched mine, and I felt him start as if shot. The next instant he clasped me tight by the wrist, and whispered in my ear, ‘The red lamps! It’s all over. God save my poor father.’ Again, though he spoke out strong and clear, ‘Hold tight to me, Charley, and when I say the word, jump for your life.’ We stood a moment poising ourselves upon the oscillating engine, then he shouted ‘Now!’ and sprang. I was nervous, my foot slipped, and I fell along the foot-plate of the engine. In an instant there was a horrible grinding crash, a dazzling flash of light before my eyes, a huge heave upwards and onwards, then blackness of darkness and insensibility.

“Six weeks afterwards I was sufficiently recovered from fever—brought on by my injuries and the excitement of that night—to hear the sequel of the story. Beyond a broken leg and rib I had escaped unhurt. Violent inflammation, accompanied by delirium, had, however, greatly retarded my convalescence.

“Hibberd and Mark were both dead. The former was greatly cut about, but the latter exhibited no visible injury beyond a comparatively trifling wound in the head, serious it is true, but not sufficient to have caused his death. He died from internal hœmorrhage, and none but myself knew that the scalp wound had been the work of the lad’s own father. Concerning the great accident to the night express on the —— line at Allonby station in 184—, I daresay you remember the newspaper accounts: to-night I have tried to give you a true and faithful history of the causes which produced that disaster, and of which a necessarily vague and incorrect version passed current with the public.”

And so ended the story of my travelling companion.

D. P.