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Will's Belgian Night by Matthew White

"Just like so many sheep!"

This was Will Brooks's exclamation, as he waited, with his elder brother Charlie, at the Northern Railroad station, in Paris. And truth to tell, the passengers were driven about and distributed somewhat after the manner of flocks, for, having purchased their tickets, they were obliged to pass along a corridor, opening into which were medium-sized waiting-rooms, separated from one another only by low partitions, and labelled, so to speak, as first, second, and third class. Here they were compelled to wait until five or ten minutes before the train was to leave, during which interval everybody endeavored to obtain the place nearest the door, so as to be sure of a choice of seats in the cars. Will and his brother had succeeded in getting pretty near the knob, where they were nearly suffocated with bad air, and much bruised by the satchels and umbrellas of their fellow-travellers.

"Now, Will, be ready," said Charlie, as a man was seen to approach with a key in his hand.

"All right; America to the front!" returned his patriotic brother; and at the same moment the doors were flung open, and in his nasal French tones the guard sang out, "Pour Liege, Aix-la-Chapelle, et Cologne!"

With a rush as of the sudden breaking away of a long pent-up mountain stream, the crowds surged forth from their "pens," and ran frantically up and down the long platform in search of the carriages for which they were respectively booked. The first-class compartment which Will and his brother had selected was speedily occupied by the six others required to fill it, their companions consisting of a gentleman and his wife, an old lady and a little boy, and two young men, evidently all French. Everybody had got nicely settled, the luggage was arranged in the racks overhead, and the train was just about to start, when a lady mounted to the doorway, with a little girl in one hand, and a bag, basket, and umbrella in the other. With a great volume of French she endeavored to thrust the child into the compartment, but was forced to desist from the attempt in deference to the remonstrances of the majority of those who already occupied it.

"C'est complet! c'est complet!" was the cry, and in the midst of the confusion the guard approached to close the doors preparatory to starting. To him the distressed lady appealed in behalf of her offspring, for whom, she declared, there was no room in any of the carriages, and further stated that she herself was obliged to remain with her youngest, who was at present in charge of her next to the youngest in another car. The guard was finally obliged to settle matters by delaying the train, and adding thereto another carriage.

The conversation incidental to the foregoing episode had been interpreted to Will by his brother, whose French had been polished up considerably during his three weeks' stay in Paris. He and Will were over for an autumn tour in Europe, and having "done" the British Isles and the capital of France, they were now on their way to Germany.

Will had enjoyed his trip thus far immensely, even though he knew no modern language but his American English, and he now looked forward to seeing the wonders of the father-land with all the bright anticipations of fourteen.

"What's that for, I wonder?" he suddenly exclaimed, catching sight of a small triangular piece of looking-glass set in the upholstery at the back of the front seat of the compartment. "Read what it says underneath, Charlie;" which the latter accordingly did, reporting that it was a device for calling the guard in cases of emergency, the way of doing so being to break the glass and pull a cord which would be discovered in the recess thus exposed, which cord communicated with the engine. But if the glass be broken, the notice went on to state, without sufficient cause, a heavy fine would be imposed on the offender.

"But suppose I couldn't read French, as indeed I can't," surmised Will, "and were in here alone—that is, alone in company with a crazy man who was about to murder me—how could I ever imagine that by smashing that bit of glass I might stop the train, and so be rescued? Besides—"

"Nonsense!" interrupted his brother. "Don't you see the directions are repeated both in English and German underneath?" and Will looked and saw, and immediately turned his attention out of the window, leaving Charlie to peruse his French newspaper in peace.

There was, however, not much of interest to observe in the somewhat barren-looking country through which the railroad ran; and voting France (Paris excepted) a very slow place indeed, Will buried himself for the rest of the afternoon in a boy's book of travels. Nevertheless, the journey proved a very tedious one, and after stopping for dinner at six, the two brothers endeavored to bridge over the remaining hours with sleep.

"Verviers!" shouted out by the guard, was the sound that caused them both to awake with a start. The train had stopped, and all the passengers were preparing to "descend," as the French have it.

"Now, Will," said Charlie, sleepily, trying to read his guide-book by the light of the flickering lamp in the roof of the compartment, "this is the Belgian custom-house; but all trunks registered through to Cologne, as ours is, they allow to pass unopened; but it seems that everybody is required to get out and offer their satchels to the officers for examination; but, as we've only one between us, there's no use in our both rousing up, so you just take this, and follow the crowd."

"All right," responded Will, now thoroughly wide-awake; "then I can say I've been in Belgium;" and snatching the small hand-bag from the rack, he hurried off, leaving his brother to continue his nap.

"Wonder which room it is?" surmised Will, for the platform was deserted, and there were four waiting-apartments opening out on it. It did not take him long, however, to discover the proper one for him to enter, and he was soon among the jostling crowd that surrounded the low counter, behind which were the customs officials, who sometimes opened a bag and glanced over the contents, and then hastily marked on it with a piece of chalk, but oftener simply chalked it without examining anything whatever, which latter harmless operation was all to which Will's effects were subjected.

Rejoiced at getting through so easily, he turned to hasten out to the cars again, but the door by which he had entered was now closed, and guarded by a gendarme. From the gestures the latter made when he attempted to pass him, Will understood that he was to go out by another exit into an adjoining waiting-room, where he found most of the other passengers assembled in the true flock-of-sheep style; but while he was wondering where he might be driven to next, he saw through the window the train, containing his brother, his ticket, and his power of speech, whirl suddenly away into the darkness, and disappear.

"Hallo here! let me out!" cried Will, rushing up to the officer stationed at the door. "I'm going to Cologne on those cars, don't you understand?"

But the man evidently did not understand, for he shook his head in a most stupid fashion, at the same time feeling for his sword, as though afraid "le jeune Américain" were going to brush past him with the energy characteristic of the nation.

Seeing that it was now too late for him to catch the already vanished train, even if he should succeed in gaining the tracks, Will gave up the attempt, and resigned himself to his fate.

"But why are not the other passengers in as great a state of anxiety as I am?" he thought, as he looked around at his sleepy fellow-travellers, who had disposed themselves about the room in various attitudes of weariness and patience. "Perhaps, though, they're not going to Cologne; very likely they're all bound for some place in Belgium here, on another road. And now what's to become of me, a green American, with no French at my tongue's end but 'oui' and 'parlez-vous,' not a sign of a ticket, and with but six francs in my purse? Oh, Charlie, why did you send me out with this bag?" and Will paced nervously up and down the waiting-room, trying to think of a way out of his predicament. Suddenly a happy idea struck him.

"I'll go out by the door that opens into the town, and walk along till I come to the end of the station building, and then perhaps I can make my way around to the inside, and so see if the train really has gone off for good. Very likely it was only switched off, and will soon back down again."

Putting this plan into execution, Will was soon out in the streets of the queer Belgian city, wandering along in the darkness, striving to find the end of the dépôt, and then of a high board fence, which latter seemed to be interminable. At length, however, he reached an open space, and was about to leap across a telegraphic arrangement that ran beside the tracks, when one of the inevitable gens-d'armes sprang up from somewhere behind, and gave Will to understand that he was not allowed to put himself in the way of being killed by an engine.

Poor boy, he was now completely bewildered, and wished with all his might that he had studied French instead of Latin. As it was, he screamed out, "Cologne! Cologne!" with an energy born of desperation, and the officer, faintly comprehending his meaning, at last muttered a quick reply in his unknown tongue, and hurried Will off back to the dépôt with an alacrity that caused our young American to have some fears he might be taking him to quite another sort of station-house. But, notwithstanding their haste, when they entered the waiting-room it was empty, and the flashing of a red lamp on the rear car of a departing train told whither its former occupants had gone.

And now Will understood it all. The passengers had been locked up while some switching was done, simply to prevent them from becoming confused.

"What a blockhead I was!" he thought, quite angry with himself. "If I'd just staid quietly where I was put, and not gone racing off, with the idea that I knew more about their railroads than the Belgians themselves, I'd never have gotten myself into such a scrape. And now what am I to do? I suppose Charlie's still fast asleep in the cars, being carried further and further away from me; and here am I, left at nine o'clock at night in an entirely foreign country, without a ticket, and, for the matter of that, without a tongue in my head. Why didn't some of the other passengers explain matters to me, and— But, pshaw! what good would it have done if they had? I couldn't have understood a word."

All this time the gendarme had been talking with the ticket agent, and pointing to Will as though the latter had been a stray dog not capable of saying anything in his own behalf. What should he do? where should he go? and how could he manage to pass away the time that might elapse till his brother should miss him and return in search of him? And now the officer came up, and began to question him, speaking very slowly, and in an extremely loud tone. Notwithstanding, poor Will could only understand a word here and there, and at length, in despair, he determined to try a new plan.

Taking out his purse, he showed the money therein to the gendarme, at the same time exclaiming, "Hotel! hotel!" and pointing to himself. The officer evidently comprehended this pantomime, for, with a nod to the ticket agent, who had all the while been grinning through his little wicket, he motioned for Will to follow him out into the street.

The Hôtel du Chemin de Fer (Railroad Hotel) was close at hand, and having in a few rapid sentences explained the situation to the landlord, the gendarme left Will to his own resources.

The latter thought for a moment that he had stepped into pandemonium itself, for opening on the right into the main hall of the hotel was a large apartment decorated with a sort of stage scenery to represent trees and lakes, the room itself being filled with little tables, around which were seated men smoking and drinking beer, while a thin-toned brass band discoursed popular music from a gallery overhead.

Will stared at this strange sight with all his eyes, and then suddenly became conscious at one and the same moment that he was hungry and being talked at by the proprietor. Encouraged by his former success with one-word speeches, Will simply said "Coffee," and then sat down at one of the little tables, where he was speedily served with a generous cup of the invigorating beverage, together with a plentiful supply of bread and butter.

"What a queer adventure!" thought the youth, his spirits much improved by the warm draughts of coffee, to say nothing of the lights and music. "But now how shall I ever be able to make the man understand that I want to stay here all night? Charlie's sure to come back for me in the morning. Oh, I have it! I'll register my name on a piece of paper, hand it to the landlord, and exhibit my purse again;" which plan succeeded admirably, and "William C. Brooks, New York, America," was immediately shown to a good-sized room on the second floor, where he lost no time in retiring to rest after his eventful evening.

His sleep, however, was not undisturbed, for all night long he imagined himself to be an American locomotive towing an English steamer across the Atlantic, and crashing into several icebergs on the way.

The next morning Will opened his eyes in a flood of sunshine, and at first could not recollect where he was, but the whistling of an engine near by soon recalled to him his situation, causing him at the same time to hurry with his dressing, that he might hasten over to the station for news of his brother. He did not have to go as far as that, however, for as he was going down stairs he ran against Charlie coming up, and Will had never been so glad to see anybody or anything since the time when he used to open his eyes on Christmas mornings to behold the well-filled stocking hanging from the mantel-piece.

Over the breakfast, which the brothers ate together in the theatrical dining-room, the elder explained how he had not missed Will till the train had left Verviers a good distance behind. "And then when I awoke from my nap," continued Charlie, "you can imagine the fright I was in when I found the cars going, and you gone. We had just passed Aix-la-Chapelle when I made the dreadful discovery, or I might have driven back here from there with a carriage, for it is only twenty miles off; but as it was, I could do nothing but fret till we arrived at Cologne, from which city I at once telegraphed to the station-master here, and ascertained that you were safe and sound, and fast asleep in bed."

"But why didn't they wake me up, and let me know that you knew that—" broke in Will, but choked the remainder of his speech with a swallow of coffee and a slice of bread, from a sudden remembrance of the crashing of icebergs, which might have been knocks on the door he had heard in his sleep.

"The whole thing was my fault, though," summed up Charlie, as, having settled with the smiling landlord, they walked over to the station. "I should not have let you go off alone in a new country; but then," he could not help adding, "you should not have left the rest of the flock, when you were shut up in the pen."

"I never will again," said Will, as they took their places in the train for Cologne; "I'll be in future the meekest lamb they ever drove. But anyway," he continued, as the cars rolled slowly away from the dépôt, "I can say I have been in Belgium, even though it was only by mistake, and so have experienced not an Arabian but a Belgian Night."