I daresay they never saw, and perhaps never will see, one another. I met them on separate railway journeys, and the dates are divided by five years almost. One boy was travelling third-class, the other first. The age of each when I made his very slight acquaintance (with the one I did not even exchange a word) was about fourteen. Almost certainly their lives and their stories have no connection outside of my thoughts. But I think of them often, and together. They have grown up; the younger will be a man by this time; if I met them now, their altered faces would probably be quite strange to me. Yet the two boys remain my friends, and that is why I take leave to include them among these stories of my friends.
The first boy (I never heard his name) was seated in the third-class smoking-carriage when I joined my train at Plymouth; seated beside his mother, an over-heated countrywoman in a state of subsiding fussiness. We had a good five minutes to wait, but, as such women always will, she had made a bolt for the first door within reach. Of course she found herself in a smoking compartment, and of course she disliked tobacco, but could not, although she made two false starts, make up her mind to change. She had dropped upon one of the middle seats and dragged her boy down into the next, thus leaving me the only vacant corner. The others were occupied by a couple of drovers and a middle-aged man with a newspaper, which he read column by column, advertisements and all, without raising his eyes for a moment.
The guard just outside the carriage door had his whistle to his lips, and his green flag lifted ready to wave, when the woman asked– “Can anyone tell me if this train goes to London?”
The drovers and I assured her that it did.
“It stops at Bristol, doesn’t it? My ticket is for Bristol.”
The train was in motion by this time. We set her mind at ease. She opened a limp basket (called a “frail” I believe), produced an apple and offered it to the boy. He shook his head.
He was a passably good-looking coltish boy, in a best suit which he had outgrown, and a hard black hat, the brim of which annoyed him when he leaned back. A binding of black braid advertised what it was meant to conceal–that the cuffs of his jacket had been lengthened; yet as he sat with his hands crossed in his lap he displayed a deal of wrist.
His eyes took my liking at once; eyes of a good grey-black–or, shall I say, of a grey with fine glooms in it. They looked at you straight but without staring; neither furtively nor with embarrassment, nor curiously, nor again sleepily, but with that rare blend of candour and reserve which allowed you to see that he was thinking his own thoughts, and had no reason to be ashamed of them. Having taken stock of us, he gazed thoughtfully out of window. His mother sighed from time to time, and searched her basket to make sure that this, that, or the other trifle had not been left behind. The drovers conversed apart; the middle-aged man (who sat facing the engine) read away pertinaciously at his newspaper, which he kept folded small by reason of the strong southerly breeze playing in through the open window; and I divided my attention between the landscape and the map at the beginning of Stevenson’s Kidnapped–then barely a week old, a delight to be approached with trepidation.
So we were sitting when the train crawled over the metals beyond Teignmouth Station, gathered speed, and swung into full view of the open sea. As the first strong breath of it came rushing in at the window I heard a shuffle of feet. The boy had risen, and with his eyes was asking our leave to stand by the door. I drew in my knees to make way for him, and so, after a moment, did the middle-aged man. He did not thank us, but stepped past politely enough and stood with his hand on the leathern window-strap. I stared out of the little side window, wondering what had caught his attention.