Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
 
Poems of Tragedy: XII. England
In the Engine-Shed
William Wilkins (b. 1852)
 
THROUGH air made heavy with vapors murk,
  O’er slack and cinders in heaps and holes,
The engine-driver came to his work,
  Burly and bluff as a bag of coals;
With a thick gold chain where he bulged the most,        5
And a beard like a brush, and a face like a toast,
And a hat half-eaten by fire and frost;
And a diamond pin in the folded dirt
Of the shawl that served him for collar and shirt.
  Whenever he harnessed his steed of mettle:—        10
The shovel-fed monster that could not tire,
With limbs of steel and entrails of fire;
  Above us it sang like a tea-time kettle.
 
He came to his salamander toils
  In what seemed a devil’s cast-off suit,        15
All charred, and discolored with rain and oils,
  And smeared and sooted from muffler to boot.
Some wiping—it struck him—his paws might suffer
With a wisp of thread he found on the buffer
(The improvement effected was not very great);        20
Then he spat, and passed his pipe to his mate.
 
And his whole face laughed with an honest mirth,
As any extant on this grimy earth,
  Welcoming me to his murky region;
And had you known him, I tell you this—        25
Though your bright hair shiver and sink at its roots,
  O piano-fingering fellow-collegian—
You would have returned no cold salutes
  To the cheery greeting of old Chris,
  But locked your hand in the vise of his.        30
 
For at night when the sleet-storm shatters and scatters,
And clangs on the pane like a pile of fetters,
He flies through it all with the world’s love-letters:
The master of mighty leviathan motions,
  That make for him storm when the nights are fair,        35
  And cook him with fire and carve him with air,
While we sleep soft on the carriage cushions,
And he looks sharp for the signals, blear-eyed.
  Often had Chris over England rolled me;
  You shall hear a story he told me—        40
A dream of his rugged watch unwearied.
 
THE STORY
We were driving the down express;
  Will at the steam, and I at the coal;
Over the valleys and villages,
  Over the marshes and coppices,        45
Over the river, deep and broad;
Through the mountain, under the road,
          Flying along,
          Tearing along.
Thunderbolt engine, swift and strong,        50
  Fifty tons she was, whole and sole!
 
  I had been promoted to the express:
I warrant I was proud and gay.
It was the evening that ended May,
  And the sky was a glory of tenderness.        55
We were thundering down to a midland town,—
  It doesn’t matter about the name,
For we didn’t stop there, or anywhere
  For a dozen miles on either side.
  Well, as I say, just there you slide,        60
With your steam shut off and your brakes in hand,
Down the steepest and longest grade in the land,
At a pace that, I promise you, is grand.
  We were just there with the express,
  When I caught sight of a girl’s white dress        65
On the bank ahead; and as we passed—
You have no notion how fast—
She sank back scared from our baleful blast.
 
We were going—a mile and a quarter a minute—
  With vans and carriages—down the incline!        70
But I saw her face, and the sunshine in it;
  I looked in her eyes, and she looked in mine
As the train went by, like a shot from a mortar:
  A roaring hell-breath of dust and smoke.
  And it was a minute before I woke,        75
When she lay behind us—a mile and a quarter.
 
And the years went on, and the express
Leaped in her black resistlessness,
  Evening by evening, England through.—
    Will—God rest him!—was found—a mash        80
    Of bleeding rags, in a fearful smash
  He made of Christmas train at Crewe.
It chanced I was ill the night of the mess,
  Or I shouldn’t now be here alive;
But thereafter, the five o’clock out express,        85
  Evening by evening, I used to drive.
 
And often I saw her: that lady, I mean,
  That I spoke of before. She often stood
Atop of the bank;—it was pretty high,
  Say, twenty feet, and backed by a wood.—        90
She would pick daisies out of the green
  To fling down at us as we went by.
We had grown to be friends, too, she and I.
Though I was a stalwart, grimy chap,
And she a lady! I ’d wave my cap        95
  Evening by evening, when I ’d spy
That she was there, in the summer air,
  Watching the sun sink out of the sky.
 
Oh, I didn’t see her every night:
  Bless you! no; just now and then,        100
And not at all for a twelvemonth quite.
  Then, one evening, I saw her again,
Alone, as ever—but wild and pale—
Climbing down on the line, on the very rail,
While a light as of hell from our wild wheels broke,        105
  Tearing down the slope with their devilish clamors
  And deafening din, as of giant hammers
That smote in a whirlwind of dust and smoke
  All the instant or so that we sped to meet her.
  Never, O never, had she seemed sweeter!—        110
I let yell the whistle, reversing the stroke,
Down that awful incline; and signalled the guard
To put on his brakes at once, and HARD!
Though we couldn’t have stopped. We tattered the rail
Into splinters and sparks, but without avail.        115
We couldn’t stop; and she wouldn’t stir,
  Saving to turn us her eyes, and stretch
  Her arms to us:—and the desperate wretch
I pitied, comprehending her.
So the brakes let off, and the steam full again,        120
Sprang down on the lady the terrible train.—
She never flinched. We beat her down,
And ran on through the lighted length of the town
  Before we could stop to see what was done.
 
  Yes, I ’ve run over more than one!        125
Full a dozen, I should say; but none
That I pitied as I pitied her.
If I could have stopped—with all the spur
Of the train’s weight on, and cannily—
But it never would do with a lad like me        130
And she a lady,—or had been.—Sir?—
We won’t say any more of her;
The world is hard. But I ’m her friend,
Right through—down to the world’s end.
It is a curl of her sunny hair        135
Set in this locket that I wear;
I picked it off the big wheel there.—
Time ’s up, Jack—Stand clear, sir. Yes,
We ’re going out with the express.
 
 
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