The Pensive And Cheerful Travelers

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.

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.

``What do you think! Badger-watching, of course!'' He beamed. ``I'd never seen a badger and its cubs. I waited, shivering; the moon was up, the air keen with frost. I was going to give up when there came a wonderful sound: a grunting and gruffling, a snuffling and sniffing, then the parents and three cubs.

``I sat, still as a leaf, watching those black-and-silver moonlit forms somersaulting, tumbling over and over, worrying at each other and squealing, while the mother watched, warily.

``All at once, they thrust their snouts in the air and were off, swallowed up in the darkness of the woods. You never forget a sight like that. Or of mad March hares at dawn - bounding and loping, drumming with their hind legs, their long ears flapping. Another wonder!''

He gave a funny secret smile. ``Once I did something really criminal.''

``What on earth was it?'' I wanted to know. I couldn't imagine him involved in a crime.

``I pulled the communication cord!'' he said triumphantly. ``Just read that notice up there: Penalty for improper use 5 - a lot of money for a fellow like me. From this front seat, I have a clear view of the track, and right in the middle of it was a sheep with lambs. The driver would never stop. He didn't care, but I did.

``So I pulled that cord as hard as I could. What an uproar! The train stopped, the lambs vanished off the siding after their mother, and the driver and the guard stood over me, roaring. They'd like to have flung me off the train. I was antisocial, they said; they had to keep to their timetable.

``I said that I'd made very proper use of the cord, but they'd never agree that saving lambs was more important than running five minutes late. Fine five quid, pay on the spot! Worth every penny of it.''

Another of his passions was for foxes. We saw them in the country, and even more of them when we entered a grimy cityscape of factories, high-rise flats, and tower blocks. ``Sometimes, before catching the last train home, I go fox-watching,'' he said. ``They're quite fearless. I'll see them, bold as brass, lifting up the lids of litter bins, taking out the best tidbits, snuffling them. Epicures!

`THERE'S something else they're addicted to - churches. There's nothing they like better than going down into the church vaults. As soon as the organ begins, they start their foxy barking - woof! woof! along with the hymns. They could sing in the choir. And I'm sure they know the timetable of every train entering and leaving the Central.'' He had a wonderful way of creating fantasies, laughing so much at his visions of those vulpine train spotters, notebook in paw, writing down the name of every locomotive, that tears trickled down his cheeks.

On our way into Glasgow, we passed the White Cart River, where tufted ducks and mallards swam, then on to a wider river, the Clyde, where great ships were once built. ``You'll maybe see another miracle here,'' he told me. It was true - over the river and outside the Central, the sky was often darkened by vast, swirling circles, like winged Catherine wheels.

``Our city starlings,'' said my companion proudly, as if he owned them. ``Did you ever see such acrobatics, thousands and thousands of them, turning and twisting, never touching, shrilling all the while? Why do they do it? From sheer delight! They're called the city pests, but they're another wonder. The world's full of wonders!''

ON what turned out to be our last journey together, he pointed down the river. ``See that tall building - that's where I work, in a grain store. It's not much of a job, yet when I'm down in the basement, I think of all the wildlife I've seen that day - swans rising up from the reservoirs, a cormorant blown inland by storms, the flight of a heron, the first swallows.

``I let the rice and lentils and millet go slipping and slithering through my fingers, and I dream of the countries they come from and the birds and beasts there. It's not likely that I'll ever travel to such parts, but I'm lucky to watch this world from the train, coming and going from the Central.''

As happens in life, I didn't see my two travelers again. I was away from home, and when I returned they no longer traveled on that line. Perhaps they had retired or moved away, but I always thought of them. I imagined Il Penseroso in his dreary city classroom, facing apathetic children year after year, longing to inspire even one of them with his sense of history, his hatred of the corruption of politics.

And somewhere, in a dingy basement, stands l'Allegro, among his lentils and rice, dreaming of wonders unseen. I wondered if by any chance those two had ever met and exchanged ideas.

What could they have taught one another? I would never forget what they taught me - the burning love of truth in the one, the unfailing optimism and sense of joy in living in the other. What indeed can you not learn in a journey to and from town?

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The Pensive And Cheerful Travelers
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today