Snippets 158. In John Bull and His Island (1883), Frenchman Max O’Rell describes the experience of travelling in England at the time. He is largely complimentary about the railway system, commenting on the lack of bureaucracy in comparison with France, “where it would seem as if bureaucracy had been invented to give employment to the company’s large number of servants”, and also mentioned its huge scale and the rarity of accidents. He gives the figure of 1374 trains a day passing through Clapham Junction as an example. The figure today stands at somewhere in the region of 2000.
Although O’Rell was of the opinion that the trains themselves were safe, he describes dangers that could be encountered on board, in particular the risk of travelling in the same carriage as a female passenger.
If you value your reputation in the least, never remain alone in a compartment with a woman. Even were she the owner of the loveliest pair of eyes, flee for your life to the next carriage. There are certain ladies in existence who levy black mail on a vast and somewhat fantastic scale.
A French diplomatist of my acquaintance was one day travelling alone with a woman, who appeared to him to be a lady in every respect. At the end of about half an hour, their eyes chanced to meet. The lady immediately smiled. Such an irresistible smile! What bewitching eyes! My friend smiled too. Nothing more. But he paid for it.
“Are we far from Cannon Street Station, do you know?” said the charming lady.
“No, madam; we shall be there in five minutes.”
“Very well, sir; if you do not hand me over twenty pounds this instant, I shall give you in charge at the station for having insulted me.”
My friend paid: he was a wise man.
Such cases are very frequent.
I know a gentleman who detests the smell of tobacco, but who invariably travels with the smokers rather than run the risk of finding himself alone with a woman.
One day he had just taken his seat in a smoking compartment.
Up comes a lady to the door: “Smoking carriage, madam!” cries he, scenting a lady in search of game.
“Oh! I don’t mind.”
“That may be. I do though.” And, at the risk of passing for a bear, he held on to the handle of the door, and remained master of the situation. Honour was safe: that was the main thing.
These charmers are not the only travelling companions to be shunned. One of the most to be dreaded is the old maid who takes up her position in front of you, and asks you point blank if you are prepared to meet your Maker. Her name is Christian-Worker, and she exercises her profession wherever she goes, distance is no object to her. Keep a sharp look-out: this one is not to be easily shaken off. She is of a persevering temperament, and difficulties do not daunt her. On the contrary, she rather likes them. The deeper dyed your sins, the greater she thinks is her merit in leading you back to the right path. As a rule, she waits to open fire until the train is going at full speed. Then she has you. No use trying to escape. You have only one alternative: either you must grin and bear it until you reach the next station, or else pitch her out of the window. You regret your want of courage to adopt the latter plan, which of course would send her straight to paradise to receive her reward. One of her favourite and comforting remarks (especially in a railway carriage) is: “Ah! sir, should we not always be prepared to meet death – accidents come so unexpectedly?” I succeeded one day in closing the mouth of one of these bores by saying, in broken English: ‘”Me not Anglish.” “Oh!” sighed she, “what a pity!” and she left me alone. I recommend you the plan: it is the only safe and legal one I know of.
The illustration above depicts the 1867 Augustin Daly play Under the Gaslight.
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