By the Railway Side, by Alice Meynell

"She had wept so hard that her face was disfigured"

Alice Meynell (1847-1922). Getty Images

Though born in London, poet, suffragette, critic and essayist ​Alice Meynell (1847-1922) spent most of her childhood in Italy, the setting for this short travel essay, "By the Railway Side."

Originally published in "The Rhythm of Life and Other Essays" (1893), "By the Railway Side" contains a powerful vignette. In an article titled "The Railway Passenger; or, The Training of the Eye", Ana Parejo Vadillo and John Plunkett interpret Meynell's brief ​descriptive narrative as "an attempt to get rid of what one may call the "passenger's guilt" -- or "the transformation of someone else's drama into a spectacle, and the guilt of the passenger as he or she takes the position of the audience, not oblivious to the fact that what is happening is real but both unable and unwilling to act on it" ("The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space, and the Machine Ensemble," 2007).

By the Railway Side

by Alice Meynell

My train drew near to the Via Reggio platform on a day between two of the harvests of a hot September; the sea was burning blue, and there were a sombreness and a gravity in the very excesses of the sun as his fires brooded deeply over the serried, hardy, shabby, seaside ilex-woods. I had come out of Tuscany and was on my way to the Genovesato: the steep country with its profiles, bay by bay, of successive mountains grey with olive-trees, between the flashes of the Mediterranean and the sky; the country through the which there sounds the twanging Genoese language, a thin Italian mingled with a little Arabic, more Portuguese, and much French. I was regretful at leaving the elastic Tuscan speech, canorous in its vowels set in emphatic L's and m's and the vigorous soft spring of the double consonants. But as the train arrived its noises were drowned by a voice declaiming in the tongue I was not to hear again for months--good Italian.

The voice was so loud that one looked for the audience: Whose ears was it seeking to reach by the violence done to every syllable, and whose feelings would it touch by its insincerity? The tones were insincere, but there was passion behind them; and most often passion acts its own true character poorly, and consciously enough to make good judges think it a mere counterfeit.

Hamlet, being a little mad, feigned madness. It is when I am angry that I pretend to be angry, so as to present the truth in an obvious and intelligible form. Thus even before the words were distinguishable it was manifest that they were spoken by a man in serious trouble who had false ideas as to what is convincing in elocution.

When the voice became audibly articulate, it proved to be shouting blasphemies from the broad chest of a middle-aged man--an Italian of the type that grows stout and wears whiskers. The man was in bourgeois dress, and he stood with his hat off in front of the small station building, shaking his thick fist at the sky. No one was on the platform with him except the railway officials, who seemed in doubt as to their duties in the matter, and two women. Of one of these there was nothing to remark except her distress. She wept as she stood at the door of the waiting-room. Like the second woman, she wore the dress of the shopkeeping class throughout Europe, with the local black lace veil in place of a bonnet over her hair. It is of the second woman--O unfortunate creature!--that this record is made--a record without sequel, without consequence; but there is nothing to be done in her regard except so to remember her.

And thus much I think I owe after having looked, from the midst of the negative happiness that is given to so many for a space of years, at some minutes of her despair. She was hanging on the man's arm in her entreaties that he would stop the drama he was enacting. She had wept so hard that her face was disfigured. Across her nose was the dark purple that comes with overpowering fear. Haydon saw it on the face of a woman whose child had just been run over in a London street. I remembered the note in his journal as the woman at Via Reggio, in her intolerable hour, turned her head my way, her sobs lifting it. She was afraid that the man would throw himself under the train. She was afraid that he would be damned for his blasphemies; and as to this her fear was mortal fear. It was horrible, too, that she was humpbacked and a dwarf.

Not until the train drew away from the station did we lose the clamour. No one had tried to silence the man or to soothe the woman's horror. But has any one who saw it forgotten her face? To me for the rest of the day it was a sensible rather than a merely mental image. Constantly a red blur rose before my eyes for a background, and against it appeared the dwarf's head, lifted with sobs, under the provincial black lace veil. And at night what emphasis it gained on the boundaries of sleep! Close to my hotel there was a roofless theatre crammed with people, where they were giving Offenbach. The operas of Offenbach still exist in Italy, and the little town was placarded with announcements of La Bella Elena. The peculiar vulgar rhythm of the music jigged audibly through half the hot night, and the clapping of the town's-folk filled all its pauses. But the persistent noise did but accompany, for me, the persistent vision of those three figures at the Via Reggio station in the profound sunshine of the day.