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The Pensive And Cheerful Travelers

By Pippa Stuart / July 20, 1994



WHEN, some years ago, I began to travel by train from a small country station to the large Central Station in Glasgow, I became acquainted with two very different travelers. They illustrated for me two poems learned by heart at school: John Milton's companion pieces, ``l'Allegro'' and ``Il Penseroso,'' the happy man and the pensive man.

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I first became aware of the thoughtful traveler because he always sat alone, if not shunned then certainly given a wide berth by every other passenger. He was invariably half-hidden behind his newspaper and could sometimes be overheard muttering darkly to himself, sometimes striking the paper as if wishing to tear it to shreds.

One day, when I chanced to have the seat facing him, he suddenly lowered the paper, revealing a lugubrious face and owlish eyes that blinked from behind thick glasses. ``Politicians! Politics!'' were his opening words, while he kept stabbing at the lead article on the front page. ``Do you know how I see our world scene?'' he went on.

``No, I don't. How?'' I asked, since he seemed to be waiting for a reply.

``As a game of chess,'' he declared with a kind of grim satisfaction. ``Look, I'll show you,'' he said, fishing about in his pockets, taking out a handful of coins, pounds, and pence with a sprinkling of francs, rubles, and kopecks. On the homeward run, the carriage was often half-empty, so he was able to arrange on the seat beside him his coin kings and castles, rooks, bishops, queens, and pawns.

``Take the Balkans, take Serbia and Bosnia,'' he began, a little less dismally, as if at long last he had found a listening ear.

Not every traveler wishes to become involved in a history lesson after a day's work, but it seemed impossible to hurt this melancholy man's feelings; besides, there was a fascination in all the moves he made on his improvised chessboard.

``Take Britain with the loss of its empire and world role,'' he continued. ``What's the next obvious move? Take the Soviet Union's disintegration, the rise of the free republics. Look at the tangle of the new alliances and misalliances! In all my years of teaching children,'' he added with infinite sadness, ``I have yet to find one pupil with a sense of looking into the seeds of time.''

SOMETIMES a penny pawn or a ruble rook went rolling down the carriage, either to be retrieved or else sneaked into some unscrupulous pocket. At first, everybody had gaped at this game of chess; then it was gradually taken for granted, a part of train travel. ``Why is there so much chaos, so much warfare?'' he would demand.

``Because,'' now he had arrived at his principal theory, ``in the world-game of politics, all the moves made are for self-seeking, time-serving expediency, not for the betterment of mankind, never for the truth. Why, so near the close of our 20th century, are we not better?''

His long, thin fingers moved his chessmen about. ``The most urgent task before us is to fight for the truth. We must never be economical with it.''

He sat opposite me, glowering down at the chessboard, a great bulky figure, his pockets stuffed with history essays to correct, pamphlets, petitions, and letters he had written to members of Parliament and their replies. He looked not so much like a haystack as an odd paperstack, rustling and crinkling when he moved. There was something magnificent about the old school-master in his solitary fight against the devious and the expedient.

It was a relief to find l'Allegro, the cheerful, merry man, on the inward journey to the Central. When I first noticed him, he was rubbing briskly at the frosted carriage window with his sleeve, creating a hole through which he peered out at the passing landscape.

There was something lively about him, an air of intense curiosity.

ON the first stage of the journey, the train passed wide fields and hedges, rivers, reservoirs, woodland rises and, far off, a long range of Highland hills: Ben Lomond, Ben Ledi, Ben Venue, the Cobbler, and the Campsies. Red deer sped along, soaring over fences and ditches; dogs raced the train; and from a heronry, the white and gray faces of fledgling herons looked down from conifers.

``There are marvels at every turn, if you look for them,'' said the happy traveler, addressing anyone listening. I happened to be the nearest. Everything he saw along the line reminded him of some adventure he'd had. ``See that wood over there,'' he began. ``I once spent a night in a tree there, frozen to the bone.''

``What were you doing up a tree?'' I asked him. He had a way of arousing interest in his listener, and a desire to know what happened next.