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A WAY STATION
Sarah Orne Jewett
Two hours to wait; an empty little wooden station on a branch line of railway, where the only sounds were the busy, insistent ticking of the telegraph and the slow sweep of the wind through leafless trees. The weather was so mild that it was difficult to believe that the day before Christmas was passing slowly by.
When one sat on the platform at the south side of the building there was seen, beyond the narrow country road, a long hill covered with brown fields. To the left, beyond these slopes with their scattered apple trees, a steep road went up across the hill. In their fenced gardens stood some small houses, one gable showing above another all the way from the low ground to the hill top, and all at different angles, as if they were either trying to climb up or had once stood at the top and slipped down along the grass. The sky was full of cold autumnal clouds, like a day in late October, with brilliant sweeps of white and dull purple against the pale blue beyond. Now and then came a soft gleam of winter sunshine. There were shallow pools of water shining through the thin rushes in a piece of low meadow close by, but there were no birds to dip and flutter in them - only one small hawk was in sight, hovering high against the clouds above the hill.
One of the houses was larger than the rest, with a great square chimney. There were more fruit trees near it and better out-buildings. All the way down to the station a narrow footpath was deep trodden in the grass - a sharp, wavering line along the hillside. Its course could be traced by rise and hollow, and along the ditch-bank of the lower ground.
Driving and walking from east and west along the road came men and women, to gather at the station, and wait for the next train. They joked merrily with one another. Some were going away, and some spoke of the friends whom they had come to meet. There was a look of holiday-making about the country neighbors, and they grew more and more jovial with the station master who was pursuing the routine of his responsibilities with considerable dignity. The sky seemed to arch wider and higher over the tiny building and the bustling group; the sun shone brighter and then went under the clouds again.
Suddenly in the footpath, far above and near the white house, appeared the figure of a woman, stepping slowly, coming steadily down, alone, irresolute, but with increasing eagerness. She made the wide field look wider as she crossed it; there was a strange aspect of fatality and accustomedness in her manner of approach - something habitual and not occasional. As she drew near there was a bewildered look upon her face. The bystanders hushed their noisy talk and made way for this newcomer as she joined them and stood alone waiting on the platform. A moment later she looked about with intentness and recognized two or three persons who answered her salutation respectfully; then they shook off the sobering effect of her presence and laughed and talked as before. She seemed wrapt in dull reflection at first; presently she turned to look eagerly for the train. She was an old woman, thin and bent, dressed neatly in black with even a touch of elegance and refinement, as became a lady in that simple neighborhood.
The great train came jarring between the quiet fields and made a moment's stop. There was a hurrying of passengers, a heavy tumbling of baggage on the platform, delighted shouts of welcome and surprise, and excited greetings. Then the cars moved on, with many indifferent faces at their windows, and left the station to its own affairs. A young horse had been startled, and several men rushed to hold it as it reared and tried to get free from its harness. The train had almost disappeared in the distance, and silence returned. The neighbors were going away with their Christmas guests, but all this time the solitary old woman stood waiting alone, as if her own guest had failed to come and the disappointment was too great for instant resignation.
Presently she turned with a sigh and with slow steps crossed the road again and went away into the fields. She climbed the long footpath, making her way toward home, and at last disappeared at her garden-foot among the apple trees. As one watched her, this sad return appeared as inevitable as the hopeful outset. One could hardly bear to think of her sitting down alone to her supper and afterward keeping so silent and wistful a Christmas eve, as the clock struck one hour after another and the lonely night came on. It was impossible not to feel unreasoning resentment toward that guest who had disappointed this affectionate heart.
Later, the station master had finished his accounts in his small, cold office and came out into the mild open air to walk to and fro. He had an anxious, official aspect, as if the cares of his own position had all the weight of the great railway system to which he was linked. There was a kind neighborliness about the good man in this time of leisure; he spoke of the mild weather, and the rush of travel just before the coming holiday.
"There was an old lady who came down by that footpath to meet some one who did not arrive," said I, suggestively.
"You saw her then?" said the station master, compassionately. "She always comes to that train; if it's ever so late she waits for it. She had an only son that was expected home this time o' day and met his death in one o' those great accidents. She seemed to understand most too well at the time; was to his funeral and all, but afterward her mind failed her and she can't hear to it that he isn't coming. She's sensible enough about most things, but she gets ready for him every day, as pleased as can be. Some people try to argue her out of it, but I call it no kindness. It pleases her to get ready, and for all she is so disappointed here at the minute, by the time she gets home she's full o' hope again."
"Poor soul!" said I.
"Yes, it's a sad case," answered the station master. "You might think I was used to it by this time, but it ain't so, and seeing all the rest of the folks to-day carrying on their fun and all so lively, having just what they wanted, the sight of her came over me as if it was the first time. You saw her coming down the hill? He was a likely man, her son was; one o' the smartest that ever went from here.
"When it's rainy weather, or after winter comes, she's persuaded out o' meetin' the train. She gets uneasy and talks about it, but there's a nice, good-hearted woman lives with her and she says her son wouldn't be pleased if she risked her health, and tells her all such sensible things till she's willing to give up. I've tramped her little path for her many's the time so she could get here when there wasn't but a light fall of snow, and when it's cold weather outside she'll always come in and sit here by the fire. I've noticed lately that she don't talk about her son's coming as she used to. She has grown more silent."
We bade each other a friendly farewell, and I have never been that way since. Alas for the lonely heart -for those whom death or estrangement have left solitary while others rejoice! Perhaps by this time the grass has grown again in that narrow footpath. I see it, winter and summer, in my thoughts. The figure that came and went has kinship with all lonely figures whose hearts cannot help seeking the love and care that they never find.
"A Way Station" first appeared in The Commercial Advertiser, Christmas Number Supplement (93: No. 65; pages not numbered), New York, Wednesday, December 17, 1890, and was collected in Richard Cary, Uncollected Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, 1971, on which this text is based.
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Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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