Forty Minutes Late
by F. Hopkinson Smith
FORTY MINUTES LATE
By F. Hopkinson Smith
It began to snow half an hour after the train starteda
fine-grained, slanting, determined snow that forced its way between the
bellows of the vestibules, and deposited itself in mounds of powdered
salt all over the platforms and steps. Even the porter had caught some
puffs on his depot coat with the red cape, and so had the conductor,
from the way he thrashed his cap on the back of the seat in front of
mine. Yes, gettin' worse, he said in answer to an inquiring lift of
my eyebrows. Everything will be balled up if this keeps on.
Shall we make the connection at Bondville? I was to lecture fifty
miles from Bondville Junction, and had but half an hour lee-way.
If the man with the punch heard, he made no answer. The least said
the soonest mended in crises like this. If we arrived on time every
passenger would grab his bag and bolt out without thanking him or the
road, or the engineer who took the full blast of the storm on his chest
and cheeks. If we missed the connection, any former hopeful word would
only add another hot coal to everybody's anger.
I fell back on the porter.
Yes' sir, she'll be layin' jes' 'cross de platform. She knows we're
comin'. Sometimes she waits ten minutessometimes she don't; more
times I seen her pullin' out while we was pullin' in.
Not very reassuring this. Only one statement was of valuethe
position of the connecting train when we rolled into Bondville.
I formulated a plan: The porter would take one bag, I the otherwe
would both stand on the lower step of the Pullman, then make a dash. If
she was pulling out as we pulled in, a goatlike spring on my part might
succeed; the bags being hurled after me to speed the animal's motion.
One hour later we took up our position.
Dat's good!Dar she is jes' movin' out: thank ye, sar. I got de
There came a jolt, a Saturday-afternoon slide across the ice-covered
platform, an outstretched greasy hand held down from the step of the
moving train, followed by the chug of a bag that missed my knees by a
hand's breadthand I was hauled on board.
The contrast between a warm, velvet-lined Pullman and a cane-seated
car with both doors opened every ten minutes was anything but
agreeable; but no discomfort should count when a lecturer is trying to
make his connection. That is what he is paid for and that he must do at
all hazards and at any cost, even to chartering a special train, the
price devouring his fee.
Once in my seat an account of stock was takentwo bags, an
umbrella, overcoat, two gum shoes (one off, one on), manuscript of
lecture in bag, eye-glasses in outside pocket of waistcoat. This over,
I spread myself upon the cane seat and took in the situation. It was
four o'clock (the lecture was at eight); Sheffield was two hours away;
this would give time to change my dress and get something to eat. The
committee, moreover, were to meet me at the depot with a carriage and
drive me to where I was to spend the night and dineso the
chairman's letter read. The suppressed smile on the second conductor's
face when he punched my ticket and read the name of Sheffield sent my
hand into my pocket in search of this same letter. Yesthere was no
mistake about it,Our carriage, it read, will meet you, etc., etc.
The confirmation brought with it a certain thrill; not a carriage
picked up out of the street, or a lumbering omnibusa mere go-between
from station to hotelsbut our carriage! Nothing like these lecture
associations, I thought,nothing like these committees, for making
strangers comfortable. That was why it was often a real pleasure to
appear before them. This one would, no doubt, receive me in a big
yellow and white Colonial club-house built by the women of the town (I
know of a dozen just such structures), with dressing and lunch rooms,
spacious lecture hall, and janitor in gray edged with black.
This thought called up my own responsibility in the matter; I was
glad I had caught the train; it was a bad night to bring people out and
then disappoint them, even if most of them did come in their own
carriages. Then again, I had kept my word; none of my fault, of course,
if I hadn'tbut I had!that was a source of satisfaction. Now that I
thought of it, I had, in all my twenty years of lecturing, failed only
twice to reach the platform. In one instance a bridge was washed away,
and in the other my special train (the price I paid for that train
still keeps me hot against the Trusts) ran into a snowdrift and stayed
there until after midnight, instead of delivering me on time, as
agreed. I had arrived late, of course, many times, gone without my
supper often, and more than once had appeared without the proper
habilimentsand I am particular about my dress coat and white
waistcoatbut only twice had the gas been turned off and the people
turned out. Another time I had
Sheffield! Shef-fie-l-d! All out for Shef-f-i-e-l-d! yelled the
The two bags once more, the conductor helping me on with my
overcoat, down the snow-blocked steps and out into the night.
Step lively!more'n an hour late now.
I looked about me. I was the only passenger. Not a light of any
kindnot a building of any kind, sort, or description, except a
box-car of a station set up on end, pitch dark inside and out, and shut
tight. No carriage. No omnibus; nothing on runners; nothing on wheels.
Only a dreary waste of white, roofed by a vast expanse of black.
Is this Sheffield? I gasped.
Yes,all there is here; the balance is two miles over the hills.
Town?no, the settlement;ain't more's two dozen houses in it.
They were to send a carriage and
Yesthat's an old yarnbetter foot it for short. Here he swung
his lantern to the engineer craning his head from the cab of the
locomotive, and sprang aboard. Then this fragment came whirling through
the steam and smoke:There's a farmhouse somewhere's over the
hill,follow the fence and turn to the rest was lost in the roar of
the on-speeding train.
I am no longer young. Furthermore, I hate to carry thingsbags
especially. One bag might be possiblea very small one; two bags, both
big, are an insult.
I deposited the two outside the box-car, tried the doors, inserted
my fingers under the sash of one window, looked at the chimney with a
half-formed Santa Claus idea of scaling the roof and sliding down to
some possible fireplace below; examined the wind-swept snow for
carriage tracks, peered into the gloom, and, as a last resort, leaned
up against the sheltered side of the box to think.
There was no question that if a vehicle of any kind had been sent to
meet me it had long since departed; the trackless roadway showed that.
It was equally evident that if one was coming, I had better meet it on
the way than stay where I was and freeze to death. The fence was still
visiblethe near endand there was a farmhouse somewhereso the
conductor had said, and he seemed to be an honest, truthful man.
Whether to right or left of the invisible road, the noise of the train
and the howl of the wind had prevented my knowingbut somewhere's
That was a consolation.
The bags were the most serious obstacles. If I carried one in each
hand the umbrella would have to be cached, for some future relief
expedition to find in the spring.
There was a way, of course, to carry bagsany number of
bags. All that was needed was a leather strap with a buckle at each
end; I had helped to hang half a dozen bags across the shoulders of as
many porters meeting trains all over Europe. Of course, I didn't wear
leather straps. Suspenders were my stronghold. They might!No, it was
too cold to get at them in that wind. And if I did they were of the
springy, wabbly kind that would seesaw the load from my hips to my
The only thing was to press on. Some one had blundered, of course.
Half a league, half a leagueinto the jaws, etc.
Theirs not to reason why But my duty was plain; the audience
were already assembling; the early ones in their seats by this time.
Then an inspiration surged through me. Why not slip the umbrella
through the handle of one bag, as Pat carries his shillalah and bundle
of duds, and grab the other in my free hand! Our carriage couldn't be
far off. The exercise would keep my blood active and my feet from
freezing, and as to the road, was there not the fence, its top rail
making rabbit jumps above the drifts?
So I trudged on, stumbling into holes, flopping into treacherous
ruts, halting in the steeper places to catch my breath, till I reached
the top of the hill. There I haltedstopped short, in fact: the fence
had given out! In its place was a treacherous line of bushes that faded
into a delusive clump of trees. Beyond, and on both sides, stretched a
great white silencestill as death.
Another council of war. I could retrace my steps, smash in the
windows of the station, and camp for the night, taking my chances of
stopping some east-bound train as it whizzed past, with a match and my
necktieor I could stumble on, perhaps in a circle, and be found in
the morning by the early milk.
On! On once moremaybe the clump of trees hid somethingmaybe
Here a light flasheda mere speck of a lightnot to the right,
where lay the clump of treesbut to my left; then a faint wave of warm
color rose from a chimney and curled over a low roof buried in snow.
Again the light flashedthis time through a window with four panes of
glasseach one a beacon to a storm-tossed mariner!
On once moreinto a low hollowup a steep slopeslipping,
falling, shoving the hand-gripped bag ahead of me to help my footing,
until I reached a snow-choked porch and a closed door.
Here I knocked.
For some seconds there was no sound; then came a heavy tread, and a
man in overalls threw wide the door.
Well, what do you want at this time of night? (Time of night, and
it but seven-thirty!)
I'm the lecturer, I panted.
Oh, come! Ain't they sent for ye? Here, I'll take 'em. Walk in and
welcome. You look beat out. Wellwellwife and I was won-derin' why
nothin' driv past for the six-ten. We knowed you was comin'. Then agin,
the station master's sick, and I 'spose ye couldn't warm up none. And
they ain't sent for ye? And they let ye tramp allWellwell!
I did not answer. I hadn't breath enough left for sustained
conversation; moreover, there was a red-hot stove ahead of me, and a
rocking-chair,comforts I had never expected to see againand there
was a pine tableoh, a lovely pine table, with a most exquisite white
oil-cloth cover, holding the most beautiful kerosene lamp with a piece
of glorious red flannel floating in its amber fluid; and in the
cornera wifea sweet-faced, angelic-looking young wife, with a baby
in her arms too beautiful for wordsmust have been!
I dropped into the chair, spread my fingers to the stove and looked
aroundwarmthrest-peacecomfortcompanionshipall in a minute!
No, they didn't send anything, I wheezed when my breath came. The
conductor told me I should find the farmhouse over the hilland
Yes, that's so; it's back a piece, you must have missed it.
YesI must have missed it, I continued in a dazed way.
The folks at the farmhouse is goin' to hear ye speak, so they told
me. Must be startin' now.
Would you please let them know I am here, and
Sure! Wait till I get on my boots! Hello!that's him now.
Again the door swung wide. This time it let in a fur overcoat,
coon-skin cap, two gray yarn mittens, a pair of raw-beefsteak cheeks
and a voice like a fog-horn.
Didn't send for ye? Wall, I'll be gol-durned! And yer had to fut
it? Well, don' that beat all. And yer ain't the fust one they've left
down here to get up the best way they could. Last winterJan'ry,
warn't it, Bill? Bill noddedthere come a woman from New York and
they dumped her out jes' same as you. I happened to come along in time,
as luck would have itI was haulin' a load of timber on my
bob-sledand there warn't nothin' else, so I took her up to the
village. She got in late, of course, but they was a-waitin' for her. I
really wasn't goin' to hear you speak to-nightwe git so much of that
sort of thing since the old man who left the money to pay you fellers
for talkin' diedbeen goin' on ten years nowbut I'll take yer 'long
with me, and glad to. But yer oughter have somethin' warmer'n what yer
got on. Wind's kinder nippy down here, but it ain't nothin' to the way
it bites up on the ridge.
This same thought had passed through my own mind. The unusual
exertion had started every pore in my body; the red-hot stove had put
on the finishing touches and I was in a Russian bath. To face that wind
meant all sorts of calamities.
The Madonna-like wife with the cherub in her arms rose to her feet.
Would you mind wearing my fur tippet? she said in her soft voice;
'tain't much, but it 'ud keep out the cold from yer neck and maybe
this shawl'd help some, if I tied it round your shoulders. Father got
his death ridin' to the village when he was overhet.
She put them on with her own hands, bless her kind heart! her
husband holding the baby; then she followed me out into the cold and
helped draw the horse-blanket over my knees; the man in the coon-skin
cap lugging the bags and the umbrella.
I looked at my watch. After eight o'clock, and two miles to drive!
Oh, I'll git yer there, came a voice from inside the fur overcoat.
Darter wanted to go, but I said 'twarn't no night to go nowhars. Got
to see a man who owes me some money, or I'd stay home myself. Git up,
It was marvellous, the intelligence of this man. More than
marvellous when my again blinded eyesthe red flannel in the lamp
helpedbegan to take in the landscape. Fences were evidently of no use
to him; clumps of trees didn't count. If he had a compass anywhere
about his clothes, he never once consulted it. Drove right onacross
trackless Siberian steppes; by the side of endless glaciers, and
through primeval forests, his voice keeping up its volume of sound, as
he laid bare for me the scandals of the villageparticularly the fight
going on between the two churchesone hard and one softthis lecture
course being one of the bones of contention.
I saved my voice and kept quiet. If a runner did not give out or
Joe break a leg, we would reach the hall in time; half an hour late,
perhapsbut in time; the man beside me had said soand the man beside
With a turn of the fencea new one had thrust its hands out of a
drifta big buildingbig in the white wasteloomed up. My companion
flapped the reins the whole length of Joe's back.
Git up! No, by gosh!they ain't tired yet;they're still
a-waitin'. See them lightsthat's the hall.
I gave a sigh of relief. The ambitious young man with one ear open
for stellar voices, and the overburdened John Bunyan, and any number of
other short-winded pedestrians, could no longer monopolize the upward
and onward literature of our own or former times. I too had arrived.
Another jerk to the righta trot up an incline, and we stopped at a
steep flight of stepsa regular Jacob's-ladder flightleading to a
corridor dimly lighted by the flare of a single gas jet. Up this I
stumbled, lugging the bags once more, my whole mind bent on reaching
the platform at the earliest possible momenta curious mental
attitude, I am aware, for a man who had eaten nothing since noon, was
still wet and shivering inside, and half frozen outsidenose, cheeks,
and fingers-from a wind that cut like a circular saw.
As I landed the last bag on the top stepthe fog-horn couldn't
leave his horseI became conscious of the movements of a short,
rotund, shad-shaped gentleman in immaculate white waistcoat, stiff
choker and wide expanse of shirt front. He was approaching me from the
door of the lecture hall in which sat the audience; then a clammy hand
was thrust outand a thin voice trickled this sentence:
You're considerable late sirour people have been in their
I am what! I cried, straightening up.
I said you were forty minutes late, sir. We expect our lecturers to
That was the fulminate that exploded the bomb. Up to now I had held
myself in hand. I was carrying, I knew, 194 pounds of steam, and I also
knew that one shovel more of coal would send the entire boiler into
space, but through it all I had kept my hand on the safety-valve. It
might have been the white waistcoat or the way the curved white collar
cupped his billiard-ball of a chin, or it might have been the slight
frown about his eyebrows, or the patronizing smile that drifted over
his freshly laundered face; or it might have been the deprecating
gesture with which he consulted his watch: whatever it was, out went
Late! Are you the man that's running this lecture course?
Well, sir, I have the management of it.
You have, have you? Then permit me to tell you right here, my
friend, that you ought to sublet the contract to a five-year-old boy.
You let me get out in the coldsend no conveyance as you agreed
We sent our wagon, sir, to the station. You could have gone in and
warmed yourself, and if it had not arrived you could have
telephonedthe station is always warm.
You have the impudence to tell me that I don't know whether a
station is closed or not, and that I can't see a wagon when it is
hauled up alongside a depot?
The clammy hands went up in protest: If you will listen, sir, I
No, sir, I will listen to nothing. and I forged ahead into a small
room where five or six belated people were hanging up their coats and
But the Immaculate still persisted:
This is not whereWill you come into the dressing-room, sir? We
have a nice warm room for the lecturers on the other side of the
Nosir; I won't go another step, except on to that platform, and
I'm not very anxious now to get therenot until I put something inside
of me (here I unstrapped my bag) to save me from an attack of
pneumonia. (I had my flask out now and the cup filled to the brim.)
When I think of how hard I worked to get here and how little you
(and down it went at one gulp).
The expression of disgust that wrinkled the placid face of the
Immaculate as the half-empty flask went back to its place, was
patheticbut I wouldn't have given him a drop to have saved his life.
I turned on him again.
Do you think it would be possible to get a vehicle of any kind to
take me where I am to sleep?
I think so, sir. His self-control was admirable.
Well, will you please do it?
A sleigh has already been ordered, sir. This came through tightly
All right. Now down which aisle is the entrance to the platform?
This way, sir. The highest glacier on Mont Blanc couldn't have
been colder or more impassive.
Just here a calming thought wedged itself into my brain-storm. These
patient, long-suffering people were not to blame; many of them had come
several miles through the storm to hear me speak and were entitled to
the best that was in me. To vent upon them my spent steam becauseNo,
that was impossible.
Hold on, my friend, I said, stop where you are, let me pull
myself together. This isn't their fault We were passing behind the
screen hiding the little stage.
But he didn't hold on; he marched straight ahead; so did I, past the
pitcher of ice water and the two last winter's palms, where he motioned
me to a chair.
His introduction was not long, nor was it discursive. There was
nothing eulogistic of my various acquirements, occupations, talents; no
remark about the optimistic trend of my literature, the affection in
which my characters were held; nothing of this at all. Nor did I expect
it. What interested me more was the man himself.
The steam of my wrath had blurred his outline and make-up before;
now I got a closer, although a side, view of his person. He was a short
man, much thicker at the middle than he was at either enda defect all
the more apparent by reason of a long-tailed, high-waisted,
unbuttonable black coat which, while it covered his back and sides,
would have left his front exposed, but for his snowy white waistcoat,
which burst like a ball of cotton from its pod.
His only gesture was the putting together of his ten fingers,
opening and touching them again to accentuate his sentences. What
passed through my mind as I sat and watched him, was not the audience,
nor what I was going to say to them, but the Christianlike self-control
of this gentlemana control which seemed to carry with it a studied
reproof. Under its influence I unconsciously closed both furnace doors
and opened my forced draft. Even then I should have reached for the
safety-valve, but for an oily, martyr-like smile which flickered across
his face, accompanied by a deprecating movement of his elbows, both
indicating his patience under prolonged suffering, and his instant
readiness to turn the other cheek if further smiting on my part was in
store for him. I strode to the edge of the platform: I know, good
people, I exploded, that you are not responsible for what has
happened, but I want to tell you before I begin, that I have been
boiling mad for ten minutes and am still at white heat, and that it is
going to take me some time to get cool enough to be of the slightest
service to you. You notice that I appear before you without a proper
suit of clothesa mark of respect which every lecturer should pay his
audience. You are also aware that I am nearly an hour late. What I
regret is, first, the cause of my frame of mind, second, that you
should have been kept waiting. Now, let me tell you exactly what I have
gone through, and I do it simply because this is not the first time
that this has happened to your lecturers, and it ought to be your last.
It certainly will be the last for me. Then followed the whole
incident, including the Immaculate's protest about my being late, my
explosion, etc., etc., even to the incident of my flask.
There was a dead silenceso dead and lifeless that I could not tell
whether they were offended or not; but I made my bow as usual, and
began my discourse.
The lecture over, the Immaculate paid me my fee with punctilious
courtesy, waiving the customary receipt; followed me to the cloak-room,
helped me on with my coat, picked up one of the bags,an auditor the
other, and the two followed me down Jacob's ladder into the night.
Outside stood a sleigh shaped like the shell of Dr. Holmes's
Nautilus, its body hardly large enough to hold a four-months-old
baby. This was surrounded by half the audience, anxious, I afterward
learned, for a closer view of the man who had sassed the Manager.
Some of them expected it to continue.
I squeezed in beside the bags and was about to draw up the horse
blanket, when a voice rang out:
Mis' Plimsole's goin' in that sleigh, too. It was at Mrs.
Plimsole's that I was to spend the night.
Then a faint voice answered back:
No, I can just as well walk. She evidently knew the danger of
sitting next to an overcharged boiler.
Mrs. Plimsole!a womanwalkon a night like thisI was out of
the sleigh before she had ceased to speak.
No, madam, you are going to do nothing of the kind; if anybody is
to walk it will be I; I'm getting used to it.
She allowed me to tuck her in. It was too dark for me to see what
she was likeshe was so swathed and tied up. Being still madfires
drawn but still dangerous, I concluded that my companion was sour, and
skinny, with a parrot nose and one tooth gone. That I was to pass the
night at her house did not improve the estimate; there would be mottoes
on the wallsWhat is home without a mother, and the like; tidies on
the chairs, and a red-hot stove smelling of drying socks. There would
also be a basin and pitcher the size of a cup and saucer, and a bed
that sagged in the middle and was covered with a cotton quilt.
The Nautilus stopped at a gate, beyond which was a smaller
Jacob's ladder leading to a white cottage. Was there nothing built on a
level in Sheffield? I asked myself. The bags which had been hung on the
shafts came first, then I, then the muffled head and cloak. Upward and
onward again, through a door, past a pretty girl who stood with her
hand on the knob in welcome, and into a hall. Here the girl helped
unmummy her mother, and then turned up the hall-lamp.
Oh, such a dear, sweet gray-haired old lady! The kind of an old lady
you would have wanted to staynot a night withbut a year. An old
lady with plump fresh cheeks and soft brown eyes and a smile that
warmed you through and through. And such an all-embracing restful room
with its open wood fire, andirons and polished fenderand the plants
and books and easy-chairs! And the cheer of it all!
Now you just sit there and get comfortable, she said, patting my
shoulder(the second time in one night that a woman's hand had been
that of an angel). Maggie'll get you some supper. We had it all ready,
expecting you on the six-ten. Hungry, aren't you?
Hungry! I could have gnawed a hole in a sofa to get at the straw
She drew up a chair, waited till her daughter had left the room, and
said with a twinkle in her eyes:
Oh, I was glad you gave it to 'em the way you did, and when you
sailed into that snivelling old Hard-shell deacon, I just put my hands
down under my petticoats and clapped them for joy. There isn't anybody
running anything up here. They don't have to pay for this lecture
course. It was given to them by a man who is dead. All they think
they've got to do is to dress themselves up. They're all officers;
there's a recording secretary and a corresponding secretary and an
executive committee and a president and two vice-presidents, and a lot
more that I can't remember. Everyone of them is leaving everything to
somebody else to attend to. I know, because I take care of all the
lecturers that come. Only last winter a lady lecturer arrived here on a
load of wood; she didn't lose her temper and get mad like you did.
Maybe you know her; she told us all about the Indians and her husband,
the great general, who was surrounded and massacred by them.
Know her, Madam, not only do I know and love her, but the whole
country loves her. She is a saint, Madam, that the good Lord only
allows to live in this world because if she was transferred there would
be no standard left.
Yes, but then you had considerable cause. The hired girl next
doorshe sat next to my daughtersaid she didn't blame you a mite.
(Somebody was on my side, anyhow.) Now come in to supper.
The next morning I was up at dawn: I had to get up at dawn because
the omnibus made only one trip to the station, to catch the
seven-o'clock train. I went by the eight-ten, but a little thing like
that never makes any difference in Sheffield.
When the omnibus arrived it came on runners. Closer examination from
the window of the cosey roomthe bedroom was even more
delightfulrevealed a square furniture van covered on the outside with
white canvas, the door being in the middle, like a box-car. I bade the
dear old lady and her daughter good-by, opened the hall door and stood
on the top step. The driver, a stout, fat-faced fellow, looked up with
an inquiring glance.
Nice morning, I cried in my customary cheerful tonethe dear
woman had wrought the change.
You bet! Got over your mad?
The explosion had evidently been heard all over the village.
Yes, I laughed, as I crawled in beside two other passengers.
You was considerable het up last night, so Si was tellin' me,
remarked the passenger, helping me with one bag.
I nodded. Who Si might be was not of special interest, and then
again the subject had now lost its inflammatory feature.
The woman made no remark; she was evidently one of the secretaries.
Well, by gum, if they had left me where they left you last night,
and you a plumb stranger, I'd rared and pitched a little myself,
continued the man. When you come again
Come again! Not by a
Oh, yes, you will. You did them Hard-shells a lot of good! You just
bet your bottom dollar they'll look out for the next one of you fellows
that comes up here!
The woman continued silent. She would have something to say about
any return visit of mine, and she intended to say it out loud if the
time ever came!
The station now loomed into sight. I sprang out and tried the knob.
I knew all about that knobevery twist and turn of it.
Locked again! I shouted, and I've got to wait here an hour in
Hold onhold on shouted back the driver. Don't break
loose again. I got the key.
My mail a week later brought me a county paper containing this
statement: The last lecturer, owing to some error on the part of the
committee, was not met at the train and was considerably vexed. He said
so to the audience and to the committee. Everybody was satisfied with
his talk until they heard what they had to pay for it. He also said
that he had left his dress suit in his trunk. If what we hear is true,
he left his manners with it. On reflection, the editor was rightI